How to tell your friends and family that you have cancer

One of the hardest things after a cancer diagnosis is telling others: family, friends and colleagues. I preferred to a more open approach for a number of reasons.

Keeping everything inside was harder, talking and writing was a form of release. People close to you need to know to help them support you. Letting people know avoids awkward questions, providing an invitation for support. Previous experience with others who did not share made it harder on me and others.

Looking back over the past three years, a number of steps helped me talk to people:

Identify your circles. Who needs to know after the obvious close family and friends? Do you have natural support groups (religious or other organizations)? What about colleagues at work – how wide should the net be?

Write out your script and be direct. I think better through writing things out. Particularly at work, a script allowed me to get out what I wanted to say and ensure that I did not forget anything important. Apart from dealing with small children, be direct and honest, and let people know how serious your cancer is.  Most people respond better to openness, although it does take time after their initial shock.

Practice on those closest  (but it doesn’t get easier). My overall order was my wife, then our kids, close family and friends, and then finally work colleagues. While my script became more ‘automatic’, I was always uneasy when I spoke. Each group is different with its own challenges (our kids were the hardest). I found I just had to plough on, despite the difficulties. Telling people in person (or over the phone) rather than by email was more personal.

Set up family “conferences” as needed. While I never felt the need to do these weekly or monthly, I do these at various key moments. The hardest was just before my allo stem cell transplant, where I had to remind our kids of the poor odds but that I chose to take this risk to be with them longer (my script helped), and that I needed and counted on their support.It was easier after the 100-day mark, but even then I had to temper good news with on-going longer-term uncertainty.

Tell your colleagues in an orderly manner.  I managed a group of 100 people. I had to let them know and my boss about the duration of my absence, as well as other colleagues.I let my boss know first, followed by my staff (starting with my immediate staff, then my management team, and lastly an all-staff meeting), and lastly other colleagues – largely within the same week to ensure that office chatter was based on shared information.

Ongoing communications. I started a series of weekly email updates to my colleagues (family and friends were more by phone or individual emails) to respond to their natural concerns.  I then turned this into a blog of weekly updates, but with the broader audience of family and friends. After my relapse, I expanded the blog to include articles of interest to me. People were informed on the health-related questions without the need to ask, and we could focus our emails, telephone calls, and walks on non-cancer living-our-life chats.

While each of us has one’s own comfort level (and initially I was more private), greater sharing reduces rumour and speculation, invites people to support you, and is one of the few areas under your control in the cancer treatment journey.

The above steps helped me be more open about my journey and, through that sharing, helped me come to terms with what I was going through, and become closer to the people supporting me.

Andrew Griffith is a cancer survivor who blogs at My Lymphoma Journey.  He can be reached on Twitter @lymphomajourney.

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