Talking to your family about a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer

After receiving a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, it can take some time to process the news. It can also be difficult to figure out how you will tell your family, and how and when you do it is up to you.

Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a Philadelphia nonprofit that connects people with a community of trusted information and support, offers these tips for telling partners, children, and parents about your diagnosis.

Talking to your partner or spouse about your metastatic breast cancer diagnosis

When you tell your partner or spouse about your diagnosis, it’s understandable that they may feel shocked, overwhelmed, or afraid of what life will be like now. This is a significant change in your life and theirs, and each of you needs time to adjust in whatever way works for you.

Here are some common partner concerns and ways to talk about them together:

  • Let your partner know what you need. If you can, try to be as specific as possible. For example, maybe you need help with laundry or cooking.
  • If you haven’t already, invite your partner or spouse to go with you to your doctor’s appointment so they can learn more about your diagnosis, the types of treatments, and the side effects you may be experiencing.
  • Your partner or spouse may also be concerned about physical intimacy and how this may change. It can help to talk honestly with your partner about how treatment is affecting your desire and experience of sex, and to find new ways to stay physically and emotionally connected.
  • Schedule regular time to just be together and talk honestly with each other about what’s going on. Let your partner know how you feel emotionally and physically and ask how they feel.
  • Sometimes the changes associated with a serious diagnosis can cause fear or anger in a partner or spouse. If your partner doesn’t respond in a supportive way, suggest that the two of you meet with a therapist who works with couples dealing with serious illness.

How to talk to your children about a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis

For many parents, it’s the first instinct to try to protect their children from news of a difficult diagnosis. One of the hardest parts of telling children about a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis is that it is not curable and that treatment is ongoing. But it’s important to be as honest as possible.

Experts say there is no right or wrong way to talk to children about a diagnosis, although there are tips for conducting the conversation:

  • Don’t assume that children, even very young ones, won’t know unless you tell them.
  • Use accurate, specific words that are age and developmentally appropriate. Since you know your child best, you may already know what will work well.
  • Be honest, but emphasize that your doctors have medications they hope will help you.
  • Let them know what to expect from their daily experience. For example, “I’ll be tired on treatment days, so Uncle Mark will pick you up from softball practice.”
  • Tell them you will let them know if there are any changes in your health.
  • Invite them to ask questions and check in with them for regular follow-up conversations.
  • For young children in particular, consider sharing your diagnosis with their teachers and additional caregivers so they can best support your child’s social and emotional needs.

How to talk to your parents about a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis?

Telling a parent that you have been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer can be very emotional for all of you. However, it is important to be honest and let them know.

Here are some ways to have a conversation.

  • Always make time to talk to your parents about your diagnosis.
  • It can help to repeat what you are going to say ahead of time. If appropriate, try acting out what you want to say with a sibling or partner.
  • Share your honest feelings with your parents and let them know what you need.
  • Stop, listen, and watch their body language from time to time to see if they understand what you’re telling them.
  • Encourage them to ask you any questions they may have.

While all of these tips can be very helpful in telling your loved ones about a metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, it can still be an emotionally and mentally challenging process. Especially if family members react badly. Joining a national or local cancer support group, whether virtual or in person, can be a great way to connect with other people who are going through similar situations.

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