Talking About Breast Cancer

Many women find it difficult to share their breast cancer diagnosis. Discussing the diagnosis can make some women feel vulnerable because they will need to be cared for by others for awhile, rather than being the caregiver. Some women also do not want people who depend on them to worry about the breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Research based on interviews with 164 breast cancer survivors in the San Francisco area concluded that women find it easier to talk to friends about their diagnosis than family, but even a friendly heart-to-heart can be difficult. Instead, the researchers found, women initially react by:

  • Repressing their emotions about the diagnosis.
  • Trying to avoid appearing vulnerable.
  • Controlling the timing of the news.
  • Asking the one or two people they tell to keep the news private for awhile.
  • Trying to protect their parents, spouse or children from the news.

Occasionally, women feel comfortable enough — or stressed out enough — to let it all out.

How to Tell People You Have Breast Cancer

Experts have identified some techniques that can help women who are trying to decide when and how to break the news:

  1. Take your time. There is no reason to tell anyone or everyone today or even tomorrow. If it makes you feel more comfortable to plan when you will share the news, do so.
  2. Practice what you are going to say.
  3. Write out what you want to say.
  4. Find breast cancer survivors to talk to and get advice from.
  5. Take someone with you to help you tell loved ones.
  6. Start identifying ways to get the support you will need. Make a list so that when people ask how they can help, you have some ideas.

Sometimes conversation starters are helpful. Current events, such as the diagnosis of breast cancer in a popular actress or singer, movies, music and books can all become good resources for starting a conversation about breast cancer, especially with children who need to be prepared for changes in family schedules and the possible effects of treatment on the important women in their lives.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Movies that have characters with breast cancer include: "The Ann Jillian Story," "In the Land of Women," "Why I Wore Lipstick to My Mastectomy" and "The Breast Cancer Diaries." Books that have characters with breast cancer include "The Hope Tree: Kids Talk About Breast Cancer," "Tickles Tabitha's Cancer-tankerous Mommy," "The Year My Mother Was Bald" and "Sammy's Mommy Has Cancer."

SOURCES: "Breaking the News About Breast Cancer," Aug. 7, 2008, HealthDay News

Written by Madeline Roberts Vann, MPH

Reviewed by Susan L. Luedke, MD

St. Louis Cancer & Breast Institute

St. Louis University Medical Center

Last updated September 2008