Telling Someone You Have Cancer

When I was diagnosed with DCIS/stage 0 breast cancer, my initial reaction was “WTF!?” with a bit of “Well, here we go” resignation mixed in. It was shocking but not surprising, if that makes any sense.

The next thing that hit me was that I would have to tell my relatives and close friends what was going on. I spent a big chunk of that first weekend on the phone with my husband Bruce’s and my siblings. It wasn’t fun to make those calls, but it wasn’t horrible because my cancer was caught early.

Telling the people closest to you is a no-brainer. Where it gets interesting is when it comes to people you don’t know as well. It’s not quite elevator conversation.

“What’s new with you?”

“Oh, just a little bout with breast cancer. But hey, how about those Huskers?”

I told only a handful of people at work when I was first diagnosed. I told more people after the mastectomy. By that time, I was writing essays about my experience for the Omaha World-Herald and was “outing” myself to some extent anyway, but I was also more comfortable talking about it when the tough part was over.

I think part of is not wanting people to look at you differently or treat you like some kind of victim. The other part is that getting a cancer diagnosis isn’t going to change who you are. If you’re very open about your life, it’s doubtful you’ll suddenly become secretive. If you were private before your diagnosis, you still will be. I handled the news pretty much the way I handle everything. There are a few people I share the most personal things with, and the rest are “Fine, and you?”

You may encounter people I call the “All About Me’s.” It’s natural for our stories, including our cancer stories, to remind people of their own stories, but there’s something a bit different about this crowd. You’ll know, because they’ll manage to make you feel like a bit player in their movie; it’s all about their emotions and reactions. I’ve found with this group it’s best just to smile and say, “Thanks.”

The other thing I learned is that my cancer story didn’t just belong to me. If you have a partner, this is their story too and they need to be able to share it. I talked about how my diagnosis affected Bruce in an earlier post. He needed to be able to tell the colleagues he trusted, just like I did. And that was fine, except I’ve never had so many people hug me at his employer’s annual golf fund-raiser. Luckily they all calmed down by the Christmas party.

Just remember, this is your story. You have the right to share it with as few or as many people as you wish.


4 thoughts on “Telling Someone You Have Cancer

  1. Jackie, Found your blog (and great poem) through JBBC. I used to be pretty private and never would have dreamed I would now be blogging about my breast cancer so openly at So, I guess I did change. I definitely agree, if you have cancer, it’s also your partner’s cancer. Great post. I’ll be back. Perhaps you can check out nancyspoint sometime and give me your impressions. Thanks for sharing your story.

  2. Wow…..I just found this blog through a series of searches which led me to your book, ‘From 0 to Mastectomy’……I identified with everything that was written; from the diagnosis through the biopsy and on to the mastectomy. What a ride! I remember minimizing my plight with anyone who asked, even though I felt like I was in the eye of a hurricane!

    Mine was in March of 2005. I had just been divorced at the end of ’04 and my mother had just died of Lymphoma the month before my diagnosis. Actually, it was my mother’s death that prompted me to be more aware and proactive in my own health; I really owe my existence to her in more than just the obvious way! My daughter was a senior in High school and my son was 21. How on earth could I hit them with this revelation after everything else they had just been though? I managed to tell them in the most positive way that I could, but my son just fell back on his bed and rolled his eyes as if to say ‘what else could possibly go wrong?’ My daughter was emotional and afraid that this might end the same way as her grandmother. I assured them both that I was in no way in that dire position!

    I might add that my ex-husband was very instrumental in helping everyone through the entire process and I remain eternally grateful for everything that he did at that time in my life.

    Thanks for providing a forum like this! ~D~

    • Diane,
      Thank you so much for your comments and I hope you come back often. Yes, it certainly is weird how cancer can pick the worst possible time to show up. I’m glad you liked the book!

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