What a cancer nurse and psychologist say about sharing a diagnosis with others

What a cancer nurse and psychologist say about sharing a diagnosis with others
  • PublishedApril 4, 2024

In the wake of a cancer diagnosis, you might feel overwhelmed about who to share the news with, and how.

“The person being diagnosed often carries with them a sense of responsibility for disseminating that information in a way that is positive, and wanting to reduce the distress to those around them,” says Kate White from the Cancer Nursing Research Unit at the University of Sydney.

“How to find the words to tell someone can be the hardest thing — especially those very close — partners, parents, children.”

Catherine, Princess of Wales, recently shared her shock diagnosis with the world in a personal video message, and also shared it had taken time to explain the diagnosis to her children first.

While most people won’t face the same level of scrutiny the princess will, there are things that might be helpful to know ahead of disclosing a diagnosis with loved ones, your workplace, and your broader community.

There is no right or wrong

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, you may feel a range of emotions including shock, disbelief, anger, deep confusion and anxiety, explains Carly Dober, a psychologist in Naarm/Melbourne, who is also the director of the Australian Association of Psychologists.

“That sense of shock can last for some time and can leave people feeling absolutely dissociated … they know this is reality, but understanding that can feel very difficult.”

Professor White says while we are all different, some people might find it helpful not to rush into disclosing their diagnosis.

“Find a space where you can … just be still with what it is you’ve been told,” she says.

She says speaking to a medical professional, such as specialist cancer nurse, can help you manage those “initial moments”.

Ms Dober says sharing with one key person, like a partner, parent or best friend, means they can assist with decision-making around who else to disclose to, and how.

Other people might find themselves telling “the first person they run into”, Professor White says, or reaching out to people who have experienced something similar, says Ms Dober.

Ultimately, it is up to you. Both our experts say there is no right or wrong when it comes to disclosure.

“While you are understanding what this means for you, what your treatment plan looks like, what life looks like over next few months — you have full agency and control over who you share with, and how much you share, and how you share it,” Ms Dober says.

It can be especially difficult to share this information with children, but resources such as Talking to kids about cancer from the Cancer Council offer guidance.

Consider what would you like when sharing this information

When disclosing your diagnosis, Ms Dober says to consider if there is anything you would like to come with that.

“Do you want these people to visit you more? Go for walks? Call you sometimes?

“It’s important if there is a need for social connection that you make that request,” she says.

She says people often won’t know how to best support you, and being clear about that can help.

Of course, if you are overwhelmed and have no idea what you need, you can defer them to one of your key people.

Professor White warns there is “something about serious health concerns that people feel they can ask personal questions about that they would not normally”.

“Diagnosis like cancer can lead to others wanting to reassure and offer advice,” Professor White says.

For that reason, you may need to set clear boundaries around what you also don’t want from people.

“Maybe it’s, ‘I’m going offline for a while, I’ll contact you when I’m ready.'”

Sharing in spaces like work and online

It’s likely your workplace has handled circumstances like this before, explains Ms Dober, so having a conversation with a trusted colleague, HR, or your boss can relieve some stress.

“They can support in talking through your options, such as taking time off work.”

But, she says, they can simply tell other employees you are having personal time, if that is your preference.

“No-one needs to know [if you don’t want them to],” Ms Dober says.

In the online space, like social media, Professor White says once that information is shared, “you can’t pull it back”, so take your time.

She says online support groups can be really helpful, but in those initial stages of shock, people might share things they will later regret.

“One of the big challenges is sometimes people join a support group, particularly an online one, and pour their heart out.

“I would encourage people to be careful about what they put on Facebook and Instagram, and particularly in online support groups, because … you are emotionally vulnerable.”


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