Talking to Your Family and Friends About Breast Cancer

Talking to Your Family and Friends About Breast Cancer

After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, people need time to process their feelings and to figure out how to tell family and friends.

After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, people need time to process their feelings and to figure out how to tell family and friends. Everyone’s situation is unique, so it’s important to do what feels right for you.

Speaking with someone you trust may help you:

  • organize your thoughts

  • think of questions to ask your medical team

  • process any feelings you may be having, such as anxiety, depression, or stress

  • figure out how to tell family and friends

  • create boundaries for anyone who asks questions you may not necessarily want to answer or offers help you may not need or want

Some people prefer to speak with a partner or spouse, trusted friend, or member of the clergy. Others find it easier to speak with a social worker, psychologist, or counselor. Support groups can also be an excellent resource for people who want to connect with others going through similar experiences.


Talking to a partner or spouse

Everyone responds differently to a cancer diagnosis. Some people want to do lots of research by looking into reputable sources, whereas others prefer to rely on a doctor’s guidance. It’s important for couples to address any differences in how they cope and to feel comfortable communicating openly with each other. A family therapist may help guide some of those conversations.

There are also other ways to keep the lines of communication open.

When people learn about a breast cancer diagnosis, it can be easy to misinterpret or even miss some of what the doctor says. You may find it helpful to have your partner with you so you can compare notes after the appointment. Additionally, your partner may think of questions you may not have thought of yourself. Going to your medical appointments can also give your partner a better understanding of the diagnosis, treatment options, and possible side effects treatments may cause.

Breast cancer treatment can affect people in different ways. Some people may feel like they can keep doing some household chores, whereas others may need help, depending on how they feel. It can be tricky for someone to know if you need help — even someone who’s very close to you — so it’s important to let your partner know exactly what you need. If your partner also needs a hand with household chores, shopping, errands, and caring for children and pets, you may want to consider asking other members of the family, friends, or even neighbors to pitch in. If possible, you may also want to consider hiring someone to help out.

Surgery, chemotherapy, and other breast cancer treatments can also cause body image issues or side effects that may affect mood and sexual desire. If your feelings about sex and intimacy have changed in any way, it’s important to have an honest conversation with your partner about how you feel. It also makes sense to ask your doctor to recommend someone who specializes in sexuality and vaginal health.


Talking to your children

Being honest about a breast cancer diagnosis with children of any age can be very difficult. But keeping a diagnosis from children can do more harm than good. Children can sense when something is wrong. It’s always a good idea to explain what breast cancer is and how it’s treated and any possible side effects, such as hair loss or feeling tired.

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Talking to relatives and friends

After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, it makes sense to take some time to figure out:

  • which relatives and friends to tell

  • how much you want to tell them (if anything at all)

  • how you want to tell them (in person, over the phone, or in a group chat)

  • whether you want to tell people you know but aren’t necessarily close to

It’s important to remember that you are in charge of the narrative.

Many people tend to respond to a friend or relative’s cancer diagnosis by asking what they can do to help. Some people may not want help at all, whereas others may need help with childcare, errands, or household chores. If you think you may need help with anything, consider making a list of things people can do for you.

For some people, it can be overwhelming to get many calls, messages, and visits from family and friends who want to know how breast cancer treatment is going. Here are some helpful ways to set some boundaries:

  • A close friend or family member can keep everyone else updated.

  • You can post regular updates in a group chat.

  • You can use a free service, such as CaringBridge, to post updates as often as you’d like and, if you need, to remind people you’re not willing to discuss certain details about the breast cancer.

  • You can ask people to call before visiting or ask them to visit on specific days.

— Last updated on September 20, 2022, 12:54 AM

Reviewed by 1 medical adviser
Rosalind Kleban, LCSW
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, NY
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