How to tell your Parents you have Cancer
Updated: Oct 13, 2018
As an adult with Cancer we are supposedly self-sufficient leading our own independent lives, sometimes with kids, sometimes miles away, sometimes abroad. Your parents could still be working, be retired or even in a care home. How do you tell parents you have Cancer when you don’t want to worry them or even hurt their health?
Telling your parents that you have Cancer is complex and not straightforward. I have broken this down into a few possible scenarios for ease and reach, for as many of you as possible. Yet, I am sure there are other more complex scenarios that aren’t featured here. (All these scenarios apply whether you have both parents or one parent).
Your parents are working or retired, active and well.
The ideal scenario is to choose a time that they are relaxed and not off on holiday, celebrating Christmas, a big Birthday etc. Choose a regular run of the mill weekend day for them and visit them.
Try and have both parents in the room at the same time, no one likes repeating or hearing bad news twice and if they have a close relationship they may need each other’s support.
Tell them the facts in a calm way. Keep hysterics at bay by keeping it factual.
“I have some bad news to tell you, I was at the Doctors last week and I have been diagnosed with Cancer. It is type xx and I have a treatment plan set for this which is x and x over the next x months.”
Get this out in one fail swoop, so they have immediate facts to work with and don’t have to ask you questions.
If you have been diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer and they aren’t familiar with Cancer terminology don’t expect them to understand the technicalities. Explain the treatment plan you are taking. (I am currently writing another post on Stage 4 Communication for more information.)
Understanding that one of a Parent’s main fears in life is that their child/children can die of be killed before them is important to bear in mind. You are effectively telling them that your life is in danger. Even if there is only a small percentage chance of danger, they will not necessarily be thinking like that and can blow things out of proportion.
Communicate fully, openly and honestly with them and their questions, even if they aren’t in the emotional state right there and then, questions may come over the next few weeks.
Crying isn’t a bad thing. If you see your parent/s upset you may want to join in, do. Don’t feel this is a time to be stoic. A big hug and tears is part of the healing process after bad news. If we weren’t supposed to cry we wouldn’t have tear ducts!
Your parents are elderly and not in the best of health themselves
This is more difficult. Receiving news like this can cause an inordinate amount of stress for them and this may make their own health condition worse. Seek some advice from your own Doctor on this. Explain what medical condition your parent/s has and establish what impact your news may have on their health. Then do a risk analysis or cost and benefits analysis.
Here are some useful questions to ask yourself in this situation:
Do you need to tell them? If so, why?
Have you got enough support from other areas in life e.g. Partner, friends, siblings?
Have you got a stage 1 or 2 Cancer that is typically straightforward and successfully treated? If yes, do they even need to know?
Do you need their support and are they in a position to give it?
What are you looking for from them by telling them?
Sometimes disclosure is not the best policy for their health. Only you can be the judge.
If, after the cost and benefits analysis, you do decide to tell them follow the steps in Scenario 1. Make sure they understand and make sure they understand what you need from them. Perhaps you just need an ear to listen to you through your Cancer journey, maybe you need more. Let them know and ask if they can help you. If they have poor health they may not be able to do much for you. Manage your expectations on what you want from them.
If you have siblings that are close to your parents too it might be a good idea to have them at the meeting with your parents, so you can all be a support to each other.
Your parent/s has had Cancer themselves or has Cancer themselves.
This can be quite common, particularly with statistics growing on cancer diagnosis numbers around the world. I have worked with quite a few clients who have had multiple family members with a history of cancer, and others going through a parallel cancer plan alongside another family member.
Follow steps in scenario 1 if they are at home and active and mentally healthy.
Follow steps in scenario 2 if they are not well and are in care or hospital.
The best part about telling a parent who has experienced Cancer is empathy. They will understand what you are going through and maybe even understand the treatment plan and what it entails. The worst part is they may feel guilty, particularly if it is the same cancer. They may feel they passed a Cancer gene on to you (if it is feasible), or they may feel they didn’t provide you with a healthy childhood. Parents like to blame themselves, as they want to alleviate the blame from their children’s shoulders; it doesn’t matter what age you are, parents can’t help themselves! No-one is to blame here.
Your parents are actively involved in your life. They are regular babysitters for your own children etc.
Sometimes parents are active supporters in your life. Whatever the reason, be it Grandkids, a family business etc. This is a critical time for communication.
Follow steps in scenario 1
But know that they may panic, particularly if they are not feeling as energised as they used to be. They may panic that you will need more time from them than they know they can give. Or they may be selfless and want to do too much, at the sacrifice of their own health!
Before you have this conversation make sure you know how much help you will need from them. Understanding your treatment plan and the timetable is key. If you have the plan with you for this meeting - even better! Work out a hypothetical timetable of help that would be appreciated from them. It is hypothetical, as you all need to agree to it. If this plan is to look after grandkids on treatment days, is there another grandparent on the other side that can also help and needs to be included in the plan? If you all have a good relationship arranging a later time to discuss the plan between you all might be a good option. Give them time (days) to take on board what is being asked of them before they commit to helping.
Keep in mind that parents can be secretive about their own health issues/energy levels. Don’t be alarmed if they appear to not be able to help as much as you would like. This can been a huge family ‘falling out’ area for some people who don’t believe they have gotten all the help they asked for and you need to manage your own expectations of your parents and what they are able to do for you at this time.
What to expect from your parents in the moment after telling them you have Cancer.
As humans we can react to being told such bad news in different ways. A person may go into shock and go quiet. They could collapse into a flood of tears. They may want to fix things asap and bombard you with questions and analyse everything. They could leave the room to avoid you seeing them upset.
It’s hard to predict. Try not to envisage what you think will happen, just play it by sight. Don’t judge them for behaving in a way that you think is wrong. Everyone is unique. They may need some time to gather their thoughts and get to terms with this news. You may find they are calmer and ask more keen questions a few days later.
Important Point to Remember about Parents
Parents have much more life experience than you. They are more used to hearing about Cancer and other life ailments from their own peers and their own parents and siblings. They can be a great resource for pragmatic views, knowledge and experience - never underestimate them in this regard.
When should I tell my Siblings I have Cancer?
A similar approach to parents can be used depending on your sibling’s personal health and life stage.
If you want to be the person letting your loved ones know about this situation, make sure that whoever you have opted to tell first knows you want to be the one to tell the next person/people first etc. And make sure to tell the next person asap so as not to burden the person you have told first. It is very stressful for the person having to keep bad news a secret, particularly in a family and they too may need emotional support from the family.
After the News is Out
Whichever way this news comes out, pat yourself on the back for being brave! None of us want to upset our loved ones but brave you are! It will make you feel much better to have shared this burden. You will be relieved of the stress of keeping it hidden and have started to grow your supporter network, which will prove invaluable over the treatment plan and beyond.
If you need help with communicating this news or if none of the scenarios apply to you and you need further help please don’t hesitate to book in with me.