Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is hard for any patient, but then comes the question of how to best share that news with friends and family and how to keep them updated during treatment.
To help answer that question, Rhonda Schroeder, a licensed professional counselor with TMC’s Behavioral Health Center and Dr. Laura Howe-Martin, an associate professor of psychiatry at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, suggested patients first figure out what they’re comfortable with sharing and who needs to know.
“You will get worn out with communication,” Howe-Martin said. “And how you start is how, I think, people will expect you to continue. Be cautious about that.”
Howe-Martin said it’s common for adult family members to feel shocked, sad and scared after learning that their loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, but the best thing any patient can do when sharing the news is to be specific and straightforward.
“With adult family, patients often tell them, ‘I went to my doctor. I’ve been diagnosed, specifically, with this kind of illness. Here’s the plan. This is what I know, right now, and I will keep you updated,’” Howe-Martin said. “That kind of lays it all out for them and brings everyone up to speed.”
A spouse or significant other is often right by a patient’s side when a diagnosis is made, Schroeder said, so that delivery is typically handled by a physician. But Schroeder said the strain of learning that a loved one is sick is significant and makes an open channel of communication throughout the entire treatment process all the more important.
“Any kind of potentially-life-threatening diagnosis like this, can take a marriage or a relationship and tear it apart,” Schroeder said. “You’ve got to learn to talk to each other openly and honestly about how you’re feeling.”
“I think there’s a lot of reluctance to talk to children, openly, about what’s going on, which is unfortunate,” Howe-Martin said. “But if you don’t talk to them and tell them, very clearly, what’s happening in an age-appropriate way, then they will fill in the gaps with their own imagination.”
Howe-Martin said a child’s understanding of the situation is dependent on his or her age and how much the child is told.
“A 4-year-old has very concrete ideas about life and death and sickness,” she said. “They might say well, ‘Well, I’ll bring you my teddy bear and that will make you feel better because, when I’m sick, that makes me feel better.’ But they may not understand that maybe the next day you’re still going to be sick or the next month you’re still going to be sick. On the other hand, let’s say you have a 13-year-old. They very much know what cancer is, in some cases that it can be life-threatening and so on. They need to be told very clearly what’s going on and this is the kind of treatment I’m going to undergo.”
Friends and acquaintances
Schroeder said a breast cancer diagnosis is often followed by many questions from concerned and well-meaning friends, but the disease and its effects can be intensely personal. So Schroeder suggests that patients take stock of their situation and figure out what all they’re comfortable with letting others know.
“You need to make the decision about how much and what you want to share,” Schroeder said. “If you don’t feel like sharing everything, don’t.”
Howe-Martin said while patients may feel the need to keep everyone updated all the time, they can take some of the stress off themselves by designating a trusted family member or friend to keep others informed.
“One of the most helpful things some of my patients have done is have somebody else run a social media page, group text message, or call list where they can give out updates on their behalf,” Howe-Martin said. “That way, they don’t feel like they have to do that, especially for general acquaintances or people that they may not be so close with.”
Good news and bad
Schroeder said while there are many promising treatments and options available to those fighting breast cancer, sometimes the fight simply cannot be won. When that’s the case, she said it’s important for patients to be truthful and to make sure everyone is on the same page about what lies ahead.
“Tell them how you feel,” Schroeder said. “Tell them what you want to do and how you want to handle the situation. You can’t tell them how to feel, but that you would like them to honor your wishes.”
Fortunately for many, breast cancer can be treated effectively and managed with medical treatment and a healthy lifestyle. Howe-Martin said good news should be celebrated and shared, but patients should know that the road to recovery is long and often uncertain.
“It’s really helpful for people to say, ‘Yes, I’m done. This is great news and everything is looking good, but my body is still recovering and I may still need some support and help,” Howe-Martin said.