Life after cancer | Talking
How do I tell my friends and family I've been diagnosed
Should I tell my children I have cancer?
I can't imagine telling the people at work I have cancer.
Did you tell your co-workers?
My friend has been diagnosed with cancer. I am trying to
be a support to her, but it's difficult. How can I help her? What should
I or shouldn't I do, or say?
How do I tell my friends and family I've been diagnosed with cancer?
Jax, Massachusetts, USA: I told my diagnosis to the people
closest to me in an absolute direct way. Because there were so many
unknowns when I first received the diagnosis of cervical cancer stage
1B, I just told them what I knew and that I was scared witless. What
was interesting were the reactions. Some friends empathized and told
me to call whenever I needed to. It felt like others tried to minimize
what was happening. They told me about the medical miracles in cancer
care and how they were sure I'd be cured immediately. The best support
came from women who themselves had been diagnosed with a gynecological
cancer and were several years out from their experience. They neither
minimized nor dramatized what I was going through. Instead, they shared
their experience and invited me to talk about mine whenever I felt a
need to. It was surprising how many women around me in 'every day life'
had gone through something similar. It reinforced an old idea for me:
that we never really know the tragedies unfolding in the lives around
us until something similar happens to us. I think human beings are awfully
brave when they live joyous lives in spite of all we suffer!
Marjorie, Pennsylvania, USA: I believe that you don't personally
have to tell everyone about your diagnosis. What I found helpful when
I was diagnosed was to have one or two people relay the news to others.
After I had told my immediate family and a few close friends and neighbors,
I asked some of them to let others know. For example, I asked my mother
to pass the news on to her sisters and brother and tell them that they
could let my cousins know. A neighbor asked if there was anything she
could do for me, so I asked her to let the other neighbors know what
was going on with me.
It can be hard seeing the look on people's faces when you tell them
the news and it can be hard on you having to tell the same story over
and over again. So, ask for help from your husband, a good friend or
a close neighbor, and slowly the news will get disbursed and it will
save the energy that you can put toward getting well again.
Michele T., Pennsylvania, USA: I had a lot of people to tell and
I did it in different ways depending on who it was. I told my immediate
family by phone, since we don't live close by, and asked them to tell
other family members for me. I called my closest friends on the phone
as well. Anyone I knew who had Internet access got an email from me.
Also, I mailed a similar letter to friends who did not live close by
or have email. Maybe it was cold, but it was the easiest way for me
to tell so many people without getting totally burned out from repeating
the story over and over. You have to preserve what energy you have to
fight right now.
I explained what was going on and what I needed from everyone. I asked
them if they knew a good lawyer (for a will), or a good cleaning person.
I let them know that dropping off dinner once in a while would be greatly
appreciated. This gave people something to do (it really helps people
to connect to you when hearing such difficult news), and many people
were grateful for the chance to feel useful. As my treatments continued,
I kept everyone I knew informed with email updates, so that I did not
have to repeat the facts to everyone by phone.
Should I tell my children I have cancer?
Lola, Utah, USA: I had three children when I was diagnosed. They
were seven, eleven, and fifteen. We approached their knowing about my
cancer with openness, and tried to minimize any surprises (like them
not knowing when I was scheduled for treatments etc.), but were honest
with them, and let them talk when they wanted, or cry, or be afraid.
The first time through, I felt that things went pretty well for us.
When I finished chemotherapy, they saw I was going to make it, in spite
of the bald head (they all were sad for me that I had to lose all my
hair). But I made the best of my situation, so they tried to also. My
husband was a big help, and we had lots of family support.
The situation changed for the worse when I recurred, three months
later. I saw that what was happening with my children was that the trust
that they had relied upon, by staying optimistic and having some measure
of "predictability", was shattered. The things we said, as
their parents, were no longer "necessarily true". There were
too many disappointments and changes from the original plans. The second
and third recurrences caught us all by surprise, and the children, now
eight, twelve, and sixteen, wondered if anything we were telling them
was believable or trustworthy.
I can see that my children came through this with many strengths,
and now that they are all old enough, they themselves are starting to
recognize this also. I could say a lot on the subject about all three
of my children - different ways they dealt with it, etc. But we did
survive it, and we are all closer for it - all of us still here, together,
driving each other nuts! (And I am glad for that.)
"The Wellness Community" offered support for kids whose
parents have cancer, led by a group of their peers and overseen by a
child psychologist. The young teenager who was in charge had lost his
father to brain cancer. They supported conversations such as "why
is there so much anger at the parent who is sick?", and how independent
"acting out" is a way to withdraw from the dying parent, separating
the emotional need for that parent before they "leave you"
Karen, Alberta, Canada: When I had my hysterectomy for
cervical cancer, my daughters were one and four years old. We didn't
tell the older one that it was cancer, but that mommy had to have an
operation to remove part of her body that was "sick". We approached
it very matter-of-factly, and she was fine with it - in fact, quite
curious about the whole thing. She did have to be taught not to tell
everybody that "mommy doesn't have a uterus anymore."
Then, four years later, when the kids were five and eight, I had brachytherapy
radiation treatments for a vaginal recurrence. This time, we did tell
them it was cancer, and what the radiation was for. Luckily, the prognosis
was good, so we were able to assure them that I would be fine afterwards.
When their grandmother died of lung cancer a couple of years later,
they had a lot more questions about my cancer, and needed more reassurance.
I have always answered their questions openly.
We live several hours' drive from a cancer centre; testing and treatment
has always involved overnight trips to the city. My radiation treatments
kept me away from home for almost a week, so it would have been hard
to cover that up. I have had to take the kids with me sometimes for
check-ups. I have always tried to take advantage of "teachable
moments" as they arise.
Georgia P., Massachusetts, USA: You should be as honest as you
can be with your children. If they are really young, you can find books
which help children understand a parent's illness. Answer their questions
honestly but if it appears that they really didn't grasp what you said,
just let them be. They may need time to absorb this in their own way,
and reading a book, playing a game, riding a bike - this might be their
way of handling it. We found that our grandchildren were quite matter
of fact: "Ok, you told me such and such; now can I go out to play?"
It is not that they didn't care, or understand - they just don't tend
to dwell on things the way adults do.
If the children are teens, then they are old enough to be part of what
you are going through. Perhaps have them help you choose a wig, turban
or hat and let them decorate the turban/hat. When my daughter was having
chemotherapy resulting in hair loss, I took my granddaughter to a craft
store and she got all sorts of meaningful embroidered fabric decals
which I ironed on to felt. Then, she cut them all out and added pins
to the backing. These were pinned onto a favorite denim bucket hat of
her mom's, so it was covered with these butterflies, birds, and birdhouses!
Have the chemo nurses give children a tour of the facility, so they
see exactly what chemo is and that it is not a threatening place. (The
nurses are very sensitive to this.)
Include your kids in as much as you can, so that they feel like they
are helping you. Your children, as well as your husband and parents,
need to be as much a part of this process as possible, for their sakes
as well as yours.
I can't imagine telling the people at work I have cancer. Did you tell
Jax, Massachusetts, USA: I'm thankful I work in a small
agency and that the people I work with are friends. I was able to tell
my colleagues I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and would need a
radical hysterectomy. And, I was able to take a six week medical leave
with pay. I can imagine being in a larger, less personal work situation
in which I might tell the Human Resources department I'd been diagnosed
with "a cancer" and would need x, y and z. My heart truly
goes out to single women who must work. I was in that situation myself
for fifteen years. I owned a photography business and if I'd had to
be out for several weeks, the roof would have fallen in. All I can say
is that cancer leaves us no choice. It's not productive to worry ourselves
sick on top of the cancer so we each do what we must. For me, the cancer
was the first time I had to rely on other people. I wasn't used to asking
for help, but I learned quickly that I had no other option. The diagnosis
made real for me what had only been a hypothesis before: that we truly
don't go through this world alone.
My friend has been diagnosed with cancer. I am trying to be a support
to her, but it's difficult. How can I help her? What should I or shouldn't
I do, or say?
Marion, New Jersey, USA: How can you support your friend?...
1. Remember her with occasional "thinking of you" cards.
Sentimental ones. Humorous ones. Zany ones.
2. Ask her to give you a list of things that you can do for her, such
as taking the dog to be groomed, taking clothes to the drycleaners and
picking them up, chauffeuring the kids to the dentist, etc., doing some
laundry or other household chore, picking up a prescription, going with
her to a movie or a concert if she is up to it, making a meal, doing
some grocery shopping, visiting (on a limited basis, unless she indicates
otherwise). There are all sorts of these little mundane, everyday chores
that can seem overwhelming to a cancer survivor in treatment. She probably
won't ask you. She doesn't want to feel like a "burden." She
doesn't want to "put you out." But, if you have a list, it
facilitates the process without being intrusive. If you say you are
going to do something, DO IT! A friend asked me what she could do for
me and I suggested she bring a bowl of soup or a casserole, something
that she could make ahead of time, probably as part of her family's
meal, and then a portion sent to me. She readily agreed and I am still
waiting (that was a year ago!).
3. Take her to her doctor appointments or to her radiation treatments.
The hassle of getting to these can seem overwhelming to her.
4. Unless she is a bosom buddy and will level with you about what she
finds too tiring, etc., make your phone calls short (yes, it is very
tiring to the cancer patient to have long conversations) and remember
that you are not the only one calling her. She may get 15 or 20 calls
a day or a week and it can be overwhelming. For a long period of time,
I had my husband intercept all calls and if I wished, or was able to,
I took the calls. Otherwise, he handled it.
5. The same thing applies with visiting. Too long a visit will wear
her out. And again, remember that you are not the only one visiting.
6. Accompany her to a chemo treatment. Take along your own reading
material, knitting, etc., accepting the fact that she won't want or
won't be able to carry on lengthy conversations. But, she will be grateful
for your company. And it will help you to understand what she is going
through in a way that words could never describe.
7. Laugh with her! Tell her good jokes! We still enjoy a good hearty
laugh and, after all, isn't laughter nature's medicine?
8. Never say to her "You should....." or "You shouldn't...."
9. Don't inundate her with the latest scoop about cancer from the Internet
or some magazine or book you have read. (Again, you have to know your
friend really well to know what type of "help" of this type
she might appreciate.)
10. When she tells you something relating to cancer, never say "I
know just how you feel." You don't.
11. Don't say "Oh, I'm sure you're going to be just fine."
You don't know that, she doesn't know that, the doctors don't know that.
12. Again, depending upon the level and basis of your friendship, she
might appreciate a gentle massage of the arms and legs or feet with
some lovely aromatic massage oil. It is bliss and helps the patient
to relax. My muscles and joints were particularly affected by the chemo
and my trip to my massage every three weeks was something to really
look forward to.
13. Don't tell her about all the other people you know who had/have
cancer and the status of their disease, such as in "Oh, poor Marie,
she battled breast cancer for five years and she finally went to be
with the Lord. What a blessing."
14. Some people can ask me how I am and their concern seems genuine
and compassionate. Others ask with what seems to be an insinuation that
they really want me to tell them something down and dirty about my cancer.
It's sort of like that hunger for juicy gossip that some people have.
15. Does she go to a support group? Most support groups welcome members
of the family or friends to accompany the cancer survivor. In one of
my groups, a friend of one patient has come with her to every meeting.
She has been so supportive and has also learned so much.
16. Don't forget her spouse, significant other or other caregiver.
Send him/her a "thinking of you," a "here's a hug"
or, again, some crazy, zany card. It will be so much appreciated. The
caregiver is experiencing tremendous anxiety also, as well as fear,
loneliness, a sense of helplessness, most likely interrupted sleep,
17. Give her a gift. "Chicken Soup for the Surviving Soul"
is such a marvelous, uplifting book. Be sure to point out Norman Cousins'
short story about the "We Nurse." If she has a CD player,
a CD with soothing music can be so helpful. My friend gave me The Secret
Garden and I played it over and over and it brought such a sense of
peace and calm. If she is an avid photographer and never gets around
to mounting the photos, a photo album makes a good gift.
18. Try to act as "normal" as possible. Although her attention
is naturally focussed on her cancer, especially at the beginning, she
will appreciate it if you can have the same sort of conversations and
activities, to the extent possible, that you had before cancer.
19. Ask her if she would like you to pray for her, or together with
her. I have a friend who is an atheist, but she lights candles for me.
Some people want nothing to do with prayer, so this would depend on
how well you know your friend. It can be very comforting.
Jax, Massachusetts, USA: The best response I got was from a dear
friend who said, "Oh my god, that's terrible! What can I do?"
My reply was to 'just listen' and she did.
The worst response I got was from another friend who said, "Oh,
don't worry. I have a friend who had cervical cancer twenty years ago
and she's doing just fine."
This is likely to be the number one bonafide scariest time of your
friend's life. It doesn't matter how many public service messages tell
us that "cancer is no longer a death sentence", when we hear
the diagnosis each and every one us thinks about updating our will.
Besides offering to do whatever needs to be done - babysitting the kids
for an afternoon, bringing over a hot meal, going to the doctors with
her - ask yourself if you have the strength to walk a dark, scary road
with your friend. She is likely to talk about her own mortality and
that means your mortality may be highlighted in ways you've never confronted.
If you're not ready or able to do this for her, tell her. It's the things
we leave unsaid and the promises we make that we can't keep that cause
the greatest damage. But if you are able, then learn how to walk beside
her in silence when she needs it, in laughter when she's ready. True
friendship is the greatest balm to illness. You possess a gift beyond
Sue D., Pennsylvania, USA: Strangely, I got the most comfort
from my friends who didn't try to comfort me! My inner response to friends
who said, "I know it's going to by OK," was "No, you
don't. It's already not OK and nothing will ever change that."
Similarly, I got no comfort from my doctors who tried to calm my fears
by quoting five year survival statistics and telling me "If you
have to have cancer, endometrial cancer is one of the best cancers to
get." Spoken just like someone who's never had cancer! My inner
response to that was, "Then what is the best kind to get if you
*don't* have to have cancer?!" Being told my stage and cancer had
a 95% five-year survival rate did nothing to comfort me and I don't
know any other survivor who has been comforted by statistics. After
all, we already "beat the odds" to get cancer, who's to say
we won't "beat the odds" again to make it into that unlucky
What did comfort me were my friends who acted on their instincts and
just said, "That sucks--how terrible!" when I told them I
had cancer. They reflected back to me exactly how I was feeling and
didn't try to "fix" me. That really meant a lot and they were
the biggest help all the way through. They were just "there"
for me. I remember keeping one friend on the phone line while I just sobbed
-- and she understood and just let me cry.