How To Tell Your Family And Friends You Have Breast Cancer

Is there really any “right” way to say, “Hey, I’ve got cancer?” I think not. However, it is a subject that must be dealt with and can be very emotional for the person relaying the news as well as for the people hearing it.

I think every family has to decide what works for them and not listen to often misguided advice and even the judgments of others.  You were just diagnosed with the dreaded “C” word. You have enough emotions to deal with. I can only share what worked, and in a few cases, what didn’t work for my family and my friends.

My husband was with me when I got the diagnosis, so I didn’t have to figure out how to break the news to him.

My sister was also “on the inside” and was waiting for my phone call. That was a little harder. Having to say the words made my diagnosis REAL!  Once I had spoken those words out loud there was no retracting them. The children! Oh, yes, our children. Do I really have to tell them? My job is to protect them. Is it fair to bring such a fear into their lives?

I know I said there is no correct way to break this news, but  for those of us who are mothers, I do believe there is a right and a wrong way to relay it to your children.

If they are young and you chose to share this with them, they need to know right away that your cancer is not contagious, and that they had nothing to do with you getting it (I learned this from teaching elementary school for many years and watching families deal with cancer). If your children are older, as mine were, then I believe you have to look at each child in your family and decide what you believe they are capable of handling emotionally.

Our sons were the first to be told. Our oldest was 19, attending USC and not living at home. Our youngest was 14. We waited until both boys could be home together to break the news. As they were older we shared facts. We told them everything we knew, and what the next steps in my battle would be. I attempted not to show fear, but they know me better than that and yes, I did cry a little!

They showed their support, we answered questions as best we could and told them it was our goal to make their lives as normal as possible during my treatment. At that point in time, I was still under the delusion that breast cancer was MY disease. It wasn’t. When one member of the family has cancer, the entire family has it (so to speak!). Be prepared for your children to respond to the news in ways you didn’t expect.

Be prepared for anger. Be prepared to hear, “This isn’t fair!” My sons did the exact opposite of what I thought they would do.

Since my oldest was in college and had experienced two years of life away from home, I thought he would just keep on with life as he knew it. He offered to quit school and move home! My youngest, the compassionate member of the family, shut his bedroom door and attempted to shut me out of his life as much as possible. He didn’t want to talk, he didn’t want to ask questions. He told me he knew EVERYTHING there was to know about cancer.

It wasn’t until my hair started falling out during chemo that the “real” son emerged again with his compassion and love. That was when he saw me vulnerable, and he knew he could fulfill a role in my life that I needed. Hint: Look for a way to let this happen for your children a lot sooner than I learned this lesson!

Next, telling your parents. Mine lived 2000 miles away. How do your tell your parents that their daughter has cancer? You tell them gently. They try to be brave but you can hear the wobble in their voices as they ask the questions you don’t want to answer.

Mine promised prayer and support and when the phone call was over, they got busy doing the only thing they could do for me from so many miles away – they called people to pray!

Then…friends! Do you know how long it takes to call all your friends and how exhausting it is to tell the same story over and over? I wish I had known about Caring Bridge at the time. It is a website designed for cancer patients (or their caregivers) that allows you to tell others what is happening and keep them updated. You post updates, your readers have the option to sign a guest book to respond to you, and at YOUR leisure and on YOUR time you can get back to people when you are ready to talk. The site is www.caringbridge.org.

The phone in our house rang off the hook morning, noon and night. My inbox was flooded. Gifts were left on the doorstep. The mailbox couldn’t hold all the cards on some days. While I appreciated knowing that I was loved and that people wanted to help, I was overwhelmed and often didn’t have the energy to respond. I had a full time teaching job, was going to doctor appointments 50 miles from my home several times a week and had two children. I had very little energy or time to respond to everyone.

I recommend you chose a few trusted and loyal friends to help you through this time. Be specific with what help you need.

I am pretty independent and didn’t know how to ask for help.  I had always been the person others could rely on to be there for them.  Asking for help was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn.  Also, recognize that there are some people who are well meaning and trying to help, but instead you discover THEY need YOU to comfort THEM as they cried about YOUR cancer. They drained me. You don’t need this in your life at a time like this. If they are true friends they will still be around when you are capable of having them back in your life. But at the same time, don’t confuse those people with the ones who just don’t know what to say to you. Many people love you and want to help, but they need you to guide them. If you show them you are willing, open and honest to share your needs and emotions with them, they are better able to give you what you need.

Finally, how to tell your employer. I am a teacher so keeping my cancer a secret really wasn’t going to work for me. I decided to share my news at the end of a teacher’s meeting one day, having told my principal that I would be doing this. For those of you in other professions, I found a video I thought was great: http://ww.videojug.com/film/how-to-tell-your-employer-you-have-cancer-2. Check it out, but remember what I first said – there really is no right or wrong way to say the words, “I have cancer!”

Another “trick” we tried was to allocate one day a week to learning our “new normal”. We ignored cancer. We did not say the word, we did not answer the phone, listen to voice mails, read emails, text, nothing.

The entire family needed the break and the chance to pretend we didn’t have cancer in the house. It became a lifesaver. We healed a little in doing this!

And as I stated in my last blog: I had very little control over anything in my life during this time. But I did try to control my attitude and find something humorous each day.  Below is one way I tried to turn my fear of the future into laughter. I didn’t want to die from this disease. I was going to be a survivor!

Top 10 Ways to Know You are a Cancer Survivor

10. Your alarm clock goes off at 6am and you are glad to hear it.

9.   April 15 is still a great day

8.   You are back in the family rotation to take out the trash

7.   You no longer have an urge to choke the person who says, “all you need to beat cancer is the right attitude!”

6.   Your dental floss runs out and you buy 1000 yards of it

5.   Your toothbrush can finally be used to brush your teeth and not comb your hair

4.   You have a chance to buy additional life insurance but you buy a convertible instead

3.   Your doctor tells you to lose weight and do something about your cholesterol and you actually listen

2.   Your biggest annual celebration is again your birthday and not the day you were diagnosed

1.   You use your Visa card more than your insurance card!



  • Katie Parker

    It was harder for others to hear my news than for me to tell it, and I agree, the best thing is prayer! Like you, I found myself comforting others instead of them comforting me. I was okay with that. I'm 36 and my diagnosis was a complete surprise. No family history, no risk factors. Great blog! I wish you the best and I will pray for you!

    • Pclemmons6

      Katie, I am Paula, a breast cancer survivor but only recently. Last year on the 4th of July weekend, I was in the hospital recovering from one of cancer's terrible side effects. I found throughout the year (almost) of my treatment, so many new friends who prayed for me and I, in turn, prayed for them. I am confident, I have this terrible thing beat, but I guess 5 years clear is the key, I wish you the very best of luck and you have my hugs and prayers everyday.

  • Mya_aka_asiha

    i am only 11 years old and have and i try very hard not think bout it

  • Barbara6510

    Jamie, you are God's gift to us and all who know you, and now to all who don't know you by this blog…
    You are being used by God to bring more peace to those who are undergoing treatment as you did AND ARE A SURVIVOR……we are proud of you (always)

    Love always
    Mom & Dad

  • Em

    I was at work @ 9:30 am when I found out that I was diagnosed of Breast Cancer :(.. I went and purchased the book of Susan G. Komen to enhanced my understanding and acceptance about Breast Cancer. Then, I called a few trusted loyal friends that I know could really help me go through this without any hesistations and they all helped me all the way :). It was difficult for me to let my family know specially my SON as I was rebuilding my life through a painful divorce at the time and the words that I have received was not as I thought .. I'm happy and proud to say that I have been a Breast Cancer survivor for over 13 years and counting!! I just hope and pray in time that my SON will understand the past is the past and let us built a new beginnings..Thank you GOD the almighty:). Amen.

  • cindy

    Were you more comfortable with people knowing even though you knew the news might quickly spread rather than trying to keep it a secret?

  • Ms. Anonymous

    I just told my best friends I need a “911 Girls Night Out” but they can’t seem to coordinate one, I wanted to tell them before they heard it from someone else (and because I need a shoulder to cry on), but now I feel like just sending them an email or letting them read it on Facebook because I can’t keep this to myself much longer and I don’t want to have to keep telling people. I just found out last week and and am somewhat in denial, I am going to a support group for those newly diagnosed, but this isn’t for 2 more weeks. I was hoping they would take the “911″ to heart but I guess I can’t expect them to know. Just needed to vent. I will be OK. I have the best breast surgeon on the east coast.