Some Key Points When Telling Family and Friends About Your Serious Illness

Posted on September 16, 2012

I am often asked for advice on how to tell family members, especially children, and friends about a newly diagnosed illness, particularly a cancer diagnosis.  It is frightening and overwhelming to hear that you have a serious illness and telling others only reinforces that this illness is real.  As well, dealing with the reactions of family and friends can be very painful.  It is important to have these difficult conversations on your own terms and in your own way. Here are some points that I hope can provide guidance when telling family and friends about your diagnosis.


–       As the patient, you set the tone. Clearly let loved ones know what you need, e.g., how best can others support you through the illness, what and how much do you want to tell others, and whom do you want to tell.

–       Share your diagnosis with friends who can be supportive to you.

–       Inform other friends, employers, acquaintances, and co-workers on a need-to-know basis.

–       Set boundaries and give instructions for follow up conversations, e.g., “This is what I am comfortable sharing right now.”  “I would appreciate it, if you wouldn’t ask about my illness each time we speak.  It takes a lot out of me to constantly talk about it. I will let you know when I have something new to tell you about my illness”

–       For more information, see American Cancer Society (ACS):


–       It is best to tell children about serious illness in an honest, straightforward manner that is consistent with their developmental age and understanding.  Keeping secrets may damage parental trust and heighten children’s anxiety by sending the message that the illness is unspeakably bad! Better to explain and teach about the illness, help children anticipate the impact of the illness and treatment on the family and insure that children have strong support both at home and at school.

–       Anticipate that children may blame themselves for causing your illness, may feel your illness is contagious or may appear to be apathetic or angry with you for being ill.  Children are confused and scared when a parent is ill and they will often act out their upset.

–        Children need much reassurance and support, and their daily routine maintained as normally as possible. Emotionally check in with children frequently to understand their perceptions of the illness, asking if they have questions and addressing their fears, e.g., “Daddy’s stomach cancer is scary for all of us. What worries you the most?” “We will get through my treatments together. I have good doctors who will do all they can to make me better. I want you to let me know when you are feeling scared and need to talk.”

–       Check ACS for additional information about supporting children: