Talking to Other Relatives and Friends

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Like most people, you probably have close relatives and friends you see and talk to regularly, as well as a wider circle of contacts you may only keep in touch with occasionally. You get to decide whom you want to tell about your diagnosis and how you wish to reveal the information. At the very least, it is important to tell the people who are closest to you, because they are most likely to be a source of emotional and practical support.

  • Decide on whom you want to tell yourself, and plan out the conversation in advance. There are likely to be certain people in your life — parents, siblings, and close friends, for example — with whom you will want to share information directly. Determine whether you want to share the news in person (if it’s practical) or over the phone. Spend some time scripting out the conversation in advance. Some relatives and friends might react with shock, surprise, and even dismay. Keeping the focus on the facts as you know them and the treatment plan going forward may be helpful for each of you. Think about how you want to put it and what you want to say.
  • Be prepared to accept and ask for help. Friends and family often respond to a cancer diagnosis by asking, “Is there anything I can do to help?” Be ready for that question with some specific suggestions. You might ask them for a few hours of childcare, help with running errands, a frozen homecooked meal or two (always in a disposable container so you don’t have to worry about returning dishes), or some other favor. Anticipate what you might need and keep a list of “assignments” you can make.
  • Tell loved ones what the plan will be for sharing updates about your condition. You may not want to take on the task of calling family and friends yourself or having to field their phone calls while in the midst of treatment. Consider assigning a “point person” or two to keep others up to date. You may wish to use e-mail or the web to post regular updates if you have an especially large or far-flung circle of contacts. There are a number of free services such as CarePages and CaringBridge that make it easy for you or a loved one to create a website where you can post updates and friends and family can write messages.
  • Set limits on communication if you need to. You may find yourself overwhelmed with calls and visits from family and friends who want to check in on you. If this happens, consider screening your calls and then returning them all at the end of the week, or getting a trusted family member to return them. You also might limit visits to 1 or 2 days or evenings per week. You could ask one friend or relative to organize the network of people who want to help out.
  • Understand that family and friends may not respond the way you want them to. Be prepared for the fact that some people might say or do the wrong thing, not because they are unkind, but simply because they do not know how to respond. They might look for reasons why you got breast cancer, such as diet, exercise, or lifestyle factors. They might offer up clichés such as “Be strong,” “Stay positive,” or “If anyone can handle this, it’s you.” They may want to tell you stories about other people they know who have had breast cancer. Or they might start avoiding you entirely because they don’t know what to say or do. Try not to take any of this personally. Instead, focus on family and friends who can give you the kind of support you need.
  • Remember that you have control over how far you want to spread the word. While it is important to tell your closest relatives, friends, and people who will be affected directly, you can decide whether or not you wish to inform anyone else. Some people find it helpful to keep certain spaces in their lives “cancer-free,” just so that they don’t always have to contend with questions about how they’re doing or how they’re feeling.

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