How to Tell Friends and Coworkers You Have Breast Cancer


You’ve just learned that you have breast cancer. You’re overwhelmed with emotions, questions, and fear. There’s so much to deal with, so much to consider, and so many decisions to make.


One of those decisions is who you’re going to share the news with, at what point you might want to tell them, and if you even want to let them know at all. You might be concerned about upsetting people and dealing with having to console them. Telling friends and coworkers you have breast cancer can also make it more real to you as you say the words "I have breast cancer" out loud.


Who you share it with, how you share it, and when you share it is all up to you. Sharing news about your breast cancer diagnosis is complicated and can potentially create almost as much stress as the cancer diagnosis itself, at a time when one of the last things you need is more stress.


There’s no easy or right way to do it, and you don’t have to tell anyone if you’d rather not share.


If you decide to tell friends and coworkers, it’s not just about breaking the news of your diagnosis; it’s also about managing the seemingly never-ending tsunami of questions regarding surgeries, treatment, test results, etc. However, knowing some of the questions you might encounter, and possible reactions you might get can be helpful.


How to Share the News

Who you share it with, how you share it, and when you share it is all up to you. It’s all about what you’re comfortable doing. It’s most likely going to be an emotional conversation, so it can take a lot of time and energy, which can be draining. If you’re telling people individually, either in person, by phone, or by email, you may find that you’re only able to handle a few “reveals” at a time.


Some people choose to share the news on social media to avoid repeating the story with individual phone calls or meetings. Other people may be uncomfortable splashing their private life on the internet. People may worry that a broad announcement of their diagnosis will cause them to be treated differently or fear that the news will jeopardize their job or health insurance coverage.


Potential Reactions

Once you let the proverbial cat out of the bag, you can expect a host of responses, some of which may be difficult to handle.

It’s understandable that you worry that every time you tell someone, they will stop seeing you; that you’ll become a “cancer patient” in their eyes. Remember, cancer doesn't define you, you’re still you! And because the news is so emotional, you may also get sad eyes and tears, hugs, confusion, etc. Sometimes, it can just be too much to bear everyone’s sadness, no matter how well-meaning. We all have those awkward stories when someone responds to our news in ways we just didn't even imagine. (Like the time a friend was trying to relate and find common ground by telling me she had an aunt that died from breast cancer).

Many people will ask how they can help, so having a list of things you may need help with—meals, transportation to medical appointments, child care—can be handy. This isn't just lip serves, people genuinely want to help and they are looking for you to let them know what you need! It’s also perfectly acceptable to tell them you will let them know if you don’t have a list prepared. Additionally, it is helpful to spread out the support over the next few months. While there may initially be an overwhelming outpour of love and assistance, ask someone to put it in their calendar and to reach out in 30 or 60 days. You'll be glad you did!

Others may say or do the wrong thing, not because they’re unkind, but simply because they don’t know how to respond. Try not to take these reactions personally, and instead focus on those who can give you the support you need.

One thing you can count on is that you will probably encounter various responses to your news. It’s often unpredictable and sometimes shocking, but a few common reactions might include:


Compassion and Support

Some people will immediately offer their unconditional love, compassion, and support. It’s a welcome response. Yes, that’s wonderful, but it can also be a bit overwhelming if they instantly launch into control mode.


Abandonment

Some friends may disappear when learning that you have breast cancer. In one survey, as many as 65 percent of survivors said they had friends or relatives who cut contact or pulled away from them after being diagnosed, It’s a painful reality to face, but it happens.


We all have limitations, and for some people, they include harsh reactions to the news that a friend has breast cancer. Survivor’s guilt, fear, helplessness, and denial cause some people to back away from bad news. Some people are just awkward and are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so instead, they go AWOL.


The behaviors that cause people to become MIA can also be because of their deep-seated issues. It may be an excellent time to consider seeking new relationships in support groups or deepening relationships with friends who did stick by you.


Inappropriate or Hurtful Comments

Sometimes, when people are faced with fearful things, like the possibility of losing a friend to cancer, their brains go temporarily crazy and say stupid things. They’re not thinking clearly because they’re worried about you, and their responses aren’t meant to hurt you. You may hear:

  • Various crackpot theories about how you can cure cancer with Tea Tree oil, baking soda, or by dancing naked in the tulips, you get the drift

  • Similarly, comments and articles about the link between breast cancer and hair dye or that one time you got gel nail tips

  • Unsolicited critiques about your treatment choices

  • Criticism about your decision to not go broadly public about your diagnosis, with some people chastising you for keeping quiet, implying that your silence is not helping other women

  • Cataloging a list for you every person they know of who died of breast cancer

  • Telling you how “lucky” you are to have received a “gift” of breast cancer

  • General invasive questions, such as “What are your odds?”

We know firsthand that disclosing your diagnosis can be daunting. Our events, webinars and programs, and most of all, our community is always here to help you with those conversations and more.


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