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'I Have Cancer': How to Tell Family and Friends

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A cancer diagnosis is devastating, not only for you, but for your loved ones as well. Deciding how and when to break the news to your family and friends, let alone deciding which family and friends to tell, can exacerbate an already stressful, frightening time. It’s such a personal decision, one that can feel just as jarring as the initial diagnosis every time you retell your story. We know that concerned relatives have the best intentions, but oftentimes it may seem as if they are prying into your business. During a time when life feels spiraling out of control, setting boundaries and taking control of how you dispense the news can help you gain a foothold on your situation.


When I first found out that I had cancer, I had to keep repeating it to myself over and over again. One day, I was on the phone for eight hours straight (yes, eight!) relaying the same information ad nauseam. Every time I retold my diagnosis story, I was retraumatizing myself, and I was not allowing myself a break from processing the information and reliving the initial experience. As bits and pieces of new information trickled in after MRIs, PET scans, etc., family members eagerly awaited my test results. I soon designated my mom and husband as my contacts. They would relay the information to my other family members on my behalf so I wouldn’t have to keep track of who I told and who I didn’t tell, which provided much stress relief, especially when the new test results poured in.

I also created a newsletter (I like TinyLetter) to send emails to a select group of friends and family that I wanted to relay the information to regarding my upcoming treatments, surgeries, etc. While email may feel less personal than a phone call or a text message, the mailing list was an efficient way for me to control how I presented the information and I only had to type it out once. I treated it less like a newsletter, but more like writing a letter. Several of my friends took the time to respond, which I appreciated.

Social media

Some people choose to make announcements on social media and others tell people individually in private. Do what you feel comfortable with. I found out I had cancer in June 2018, but I kept my diagnosis relatively private until September. I was nervous about sharing online, but I was pleasantly inundated with support from my social networks. People offered up both grand offers and simple yet thoughtful gestures, such as cooking for me, driving me to appointments, or sending me books.

Make it easier

I could never quite figure out how or when to tell people I had cancer. It’s so much to absorb and figure out, especially after the initial diagnosis. In order to soften the shock and, again, not retraumatize myself, I would send a message or an email to people I had not seen in a while so they could process my new diagnosis on their own terms. When I saw them in person, it wasn’t as shocking or uncomfortable for either of us.

Do what’s best for you

Ultimately, you need to do what’s best for you. Don’t feel guilty for not getting it right. There were many times when I awkwardly blurted out “I have cancer” because I wasn’t sure what the right and wrong way was to go about this news. Remember that you are in control of when and which medical details to share and with whom. You don’t owe anyone an explanation, especially if you’re concerned about keeping your health issues private from current or future employers.

Christy Lorio is an Ochsner patient being treated for stage IV colorectal cancer. A New Orleans area native, she is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at The University of New Orleans.

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