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How to Tell Family and Friends Your Diagnosis

The most difficult time for me was when I was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma (NHL) and trying to figure out the best way to tell family and friends. Not only was I emotional about hearing the word “cancer”, I was worried about being strong for everyone else who relied on me.

The hardest part in telling them was not knowing what to expect or how my body would respond to the treatment.

Here’s what worked for me:

  • Finding information about NHL: The most informative sources for me were the websites of the Lymphoma & Leukemia Society and Lymphoma Research Foundation and a book from my doctor’s office (100 Questions/Answers about Lymphoma). I didn’t spend much time reading survival statistics or other scary prognosis information. I focused on my oncologist telling me, “We’ll get you through this” and looked to other cancer survivors for motivation and advice.
  • Tell the strongest people in your life first. It may be your family or your close friends. These are the people who are going to help keep you strong and fighting. I’m fortunate to have a close friend of nearly 30 years who took charge for me – attending doctor visits to take notes, organizing people to help with meals and helping me with child care and cleaning my house. This was empowering for me to know there were people who supported me and put me in a good state of mind to take on the challenge of getting through treatment.  If you don’t have family or close friends nearby, find a cancer survivor network or other support group. Ask your doctor or check with your local hospital or church. Surrounding yourself with strong, positive people will help your spirit.
  • Breaking the news to your family: I struggled over how much information to share with my 10-year-old son. I decided to tell him my diagnosis, keeping a positive attitude about my expected results from treatment. I gathered as much of the extended family together as I could and we sat at the dining room table and discussed it, with everyone asking questions, ranging from the different types of NHL to my hair falling out from the chemotherapy. My son took it very well and occasionally had questions about my treatment. They would usually come when we were alone, driving in the car or when I was tucking him in at night. One question that stands out was when he asked if NHL was dangerous. I answered that it used to be life-threatening, but medical treatment had improved and there were many people living with NHL. It helped that we met two NHL survivors and shared their story with my son.
  • Sharing the news at work: Although I did tell my boss right away, I waited to tell most of my coworkers until I knew more about NHL and my treatment plan. Your HR department or personnel manager may be a resource for you in answering questions about possible disability leave during your treatment.
  • Managing your expectations: Another difficult part of delivering the news was when people reacted in an unexpected way. I had to keep in mind that many people simply do not know what to say, so it may seem that they become distant or don’t care. It’s especially difficult when someone you considered a friend doesn’t respond in a way you’d expected. Rather than worrying too much about this, I chose to focus on the outpouring of love I received from others. I was touched by the people who took the time to send a card or write an encouraging note, or to put me in touch with someone they knew who was a NHL or other cancer survivor.

One of the most important things that got me through was to remember to maintain my sense of humor and keep a positive attitude. Surround yourself with people who make you laugh and those who see the glass half full! And when you recover, make sure to be the person a friend can rely on in their time of need.


This article is intended to convey general educational information and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional healthcare advice.

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One comment

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