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Telling Your Family and Friends You Have Cancer

Telling Your Family and Friends You Have Cancer
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Published on May 28, 2020

Excerpted from Bald Is Better with Earrings: A Survivor’s Guide to Getting Through Breast Cancer. Published by HarperCollins, © 2015 by Andrea Hutton

At the time my husband and I went to see one of the breast surgeons for a consultation, we still hadn’t told our kids. I’d known for about ten days and had had a week of tests, but since the surgery hadn’t been scheduled, we still hadn’t said anything. The surgeon told us we had to tell them. Right away. He said that kids are sensitive, and they’d probably already figured out that something was up. We talked to a social worker, read the pamphlets about how to tell teenagers, and figured out we agreed with the consensus.
Here it is: Be honest, but put it in a positive light. Mom has been diagnosed with breast cancer, but we’re treating it right away. We’re lining up a great team of doctors, and although it’s scary, this is a treatable disease, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure she’s going to be okay. And we’re going to tell you everything as we go along.
We followed the professional advice we received. We were honest and only offered as much detail as each child requested. Obviously everyone’s kids will take the news differently. The social worker said that most will ask a few questions, then pretty much ask what’s for dinner. This turned out to be true. My kids reacted according to their personalities. One only wanted the worst-case scenario: “Are you going to die?” The other wanted much more information. One moved on from the news quicker than the other. My daughter, Marisa, jokingly offers the following advice for what to do when you sit your kids down:
Step 1—Here’s a cookie.
Step 2—I have cancer, but I’m going to be okay.
Step 3—Here’s some money.
Since we had teenagers, we also told them not to search the Internet randomly because there’s so much false information. Also, there’d be plenty of information out there that wouldn’t apply to me. My son, Jeremy, would occasionally ignore my advice not to research things online, and then get upset by what he found. My daughter only cared about what was actually happening to me, not the statistics. My oncologist recommended that we tell them about if they asked. It has the most up- to-date and scientifically sound information. That’s what we did.
Telling the rest of my family was the worst part. There’s never a good time to tell someone who loves you that you have cancer. My big worry was that my mother would want to move into my house. That’s exactly what she wanted to do. We had to find a balance between her need to take care of me, my need still to be a grown-up, and my husband’s need for some privacy. It turns out you have a lot of responsibility when you have cancer. How you present yourself and your disease to your family, friends, and coworkers is often complicated. Of course I wanted to be like the women in those TV miniseries who are fighters and deal with all the treatment and surgery with humor and grace. Hah! That’s fiction. You know how you tell your kids that the monsters in the movies aren’t real? Guess what? The perfect cancer patient in the movie isn’t real either. The producers don’t show her awake at four a.m., unable to sleep because of pain and side effects and worry. They don’t show her yelling at the kids because of steroid rage. So don’t set yourself or your family up. Be honest; don’t oversell.
This book actually started as a blog on as a way for me to let everyone outside my immediate circle know how I was doing. I did it partly as a way to cut down on having to tell the story a million times. Or receiving a hundred phone calls a day that started with, “Hi, just checking in to see how you are.” I realized very quickly into my deep dive down the rabbit hole that I couldn’t handle that.
When you tell people, they’ll all respond differently. Some will tell you you’ll be fine because you’re young and strong. Or old and strong. Or just you. Some will burst into tears. Some will be stoic and offer to do anything they can for you. Some will immediately start talking about people they’ve known who’ve had cancer. Some will want to tell you horror stories. And then the advice starts. Some people just have to offer advice. A flood of advice. And all of it conflicting. About what you should or shouldn’t eat or which doctor to see. About whether or not you should exercise. About how to keep your spirits up (you will hear the words “fighting spirit” way too many times). They cannot help themselves.
If you’re like me, you’ll find some of it thoughtful and well intentioned but frustrating and confusing. And you’ll want to turn off the spigot. My surgeon’s nurse gave me the best advice of all. She told me just to say, “Thank you, but everyone’s experience is different, and I’m not comfortable talking about it.” For those who want to give you a medical consult, just say, “I’m very comfortable with my doctors, and I’m taking medical advice only from them, but thank you anyway.”
Not long after I was in treatment, a woman I had known casually for years and whom I knew had been fighting her own battle for all that time wrote me an e-mail that ended with “Welcome to my club.” I wrote back, “Your club sucks.”

Telling the News

1.     Tell your kids and immediate family right away. Be clear and concise. Keep the script simple. Plan what you’re going to say, rehearse it with yourself or someone you trust, and stick to it.
2.     Sign up for or one of the other Web sites offered by your local cancer center to use as a clearinghouse for information. Even if you yourself don’t use it to write, someone in your immediate circle can do it to keep everyone up-to-date. You can even include photos. I posted ones of me in all my different wigs.
3.     Make sure everyone knows your policy on advice. Medical advice should come from your medical team only. No exceptions. My brother’s a radiologist, and even though he counts as a doctor, I wanted his advice to come through my own oncologist so I had him call the radiologist first. Doctors only.
4.     Do not answer the phone if you don’t want to. It’s not your responsibility to listen to everyone’s reactions when they find out. Let someone else give you the message: “Dina called; she sends her love.” You don’t need to listen to twenty minutes of . . . whatever. People say so many things—from the inspirational to the insufferable. Pick and choose carefully.
Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. You’re shocked. You’re sad and shaken and scared and lots of other words. You will be lots of other letters as well. You don’t have to make believe you’re okay with breast cancer. Of course you’re going to fight, blah, blah, blah. Embrace the fact that your life may stink right now and you don’t have to pretend otherwise.

 ~Andrea Hutton

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.


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