Coming Out About Your Cancer

by Brian English

After the initial shock of your cancer diagnosis subsides, it begins to dawn on you that you have a big decision to make: how on earth are you going to break the news about all this? And who on earth do you tell first? How do you tell them you have cancer?

I Have Cancer

To the uninitiated, struggling with the mere fact of “breaking the news” may seem insignificant in comparison to the news itself. But that’s hardly the case. A cancer diagnosis is a profoundly life-altering event. It will have an emotional toll on those around you. Though it may seem like an odd comparison, cancer is news that’s on par with the announcement of an engagement, a pregnancy, a birth, and a pending divorce. They don’t call it “The Big C” for nothing.

Breast cancer patient Diane Mapes wrote of her experience in an article that appeared earlier this year on the news site of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “I immediately told my family, a few close friends and my favorite editor since I knew my freelance work would be affected,” Mapes writes. “After that, I parceled out the news as if I were feeding a baby bird … I held onto my cancer news so tightly, so obsessively, you’d have thought it was Tolkien’s One Ring.”

For Mapes, the process of just sharing the news became an incredible emotional drain. The reactions she faced were varied – some people cried and needed comforting, some would ask blunt questions about her odds for surviving, and still others simply took the news and faded from her life.

It’s strange to have to think about the reaction of others when it’s you that’s about to kick off a stressful and arduous journey … but that’s what happens. Which is why spreading the news is, in many ways, the first big hurdle of your cancer journey.

Because this is such a personal decision, there are as many philosophies as to how to best handle this situation as there are cancer patients. You can even see the massive difference in attitude about making – or not making – the big announcement when it comes to celebrities. ESPN’s Robin Roberts was very public with her breast cancer fight, as were Joan Lunden, “Good Morning America” host Amy Robach, and even former President Jimmy Carter. At the same time, the world was shocked by the deaths of David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman because they’d kept mum about their cancer diagnoses to all of their closest friends and family. An even more extreme example is best-selling novelist Jackie Collins, who passed away from Stage 4 breast cancer last year – without even having told her sister that she was ill.

Robin Roberts

Ramataz from WhatNext writes that she tried to keep the news to herself, but that worked for “30 minutes.” After bursting into tears, she made her sister break the news to her mom, while she told her close friends and her boss.

Some use social media to spread the word to the entire world at once. After telling her closest family members, WhatNexter LiveWithCancer put the news on Facebook. “That seemed like the easiest way to do it,” she writes. “I have always been an open book, and would not have wanted to hide it.”

BoiseB, from the forums says she spread the news so quickly it was as though she “rented a billboard to announce by breast cancer,” but she’s quick to not that “had I had a more advanced case, I might have not been so open.”

Many WhatNexters agree that the decision is a deeply personal one. Ih25 writes her main answer to the question is that “what is right for you may not be what some of us did.” vietnam1968 agrees that the decision “seems very personal to me; close friends and family only, and no pity – only prayers.”

Keeping It Inside

Of course, there are some that prefer a frontal assault, treating their diagnosis as an “it is what it is” situation. “I told family first, then work,” writes WhatNexter GregP_WN. “After that anyone else that brought it up. I didn't consider whether or not to mention it.” Straight to the point. Not a bad idea, because after all … best to get the news out there so you can start working on fighting the disease.

How did you spread the news about your cancer diagnosis? Share your story on the WhatNext forums.

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