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How to talk to people about your diagnosis

There’s no right or wrong way to tell people about your illness or diagnosis. To let family and friends help, you have to tell them the news. Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate to have a family meeting where you can tell everyone you’re closest with, all at once. You could arrange to meet with individuals or call them on the phone—or you could appoint a close friend, spouse, or family member to tell people for you.

However you decide to let people know, it’s important that it’s not overly stressful for you because having these conversations can be draining and emotional.

When you’re sick or injured, getting help with daily activities can make a huge difference. Receiving help with groceries, childcare, cleaning, laundry, and cooking can help reduce your stress—and let you focus on what really matters. Websites and apps offer a way to communicate broadly with your support network and coordinate care.

Conversation tips

  • Decide who needs to know. Maybe you’re fine with close family members knowing every detail but want acquaintances to only know a few basic facts. 
  • If the idea of telling family and friends can be stressful, consider writing down what you want to say—or make a rough outline before sitting down to talk. 
  • Talking about it may help you feel better. Sharing information with other people can offer emotional support. You may get support from unexpected people.

Talking to children about illness

Though parents want to protect children from negative emotions, talking to them in age-appropriate ways about the illness of a loved one can reduce their anxiety and stress. Knowing what’s going on can also help them worry less, process their emotions, and cope better with changes.1

Using age-appropriate words, or even pictures and play, can help you tell what they need to know. If you’re struggling to find the right words, a lot of age-appropriate books deal with various situations to help introduce potentially complicated concepts.2

Ages 3–6

At this age, keeping explanations short and simple, and even using pictures or toys, can help. Young children may fear they caused the illness or it’s a punishment for something they did, so explaining how people get sick, very simply, can help alleviate guilt and worry. Also, remind them they can’t catch this kind of sickness the way they might catch a cold.

Ages 7–12

Using simple terms to explain the illness can help kids this age understand and ask questions. It may be appropriate to let them help with care, or make cards or artwork for their loved one. Keeping children involved, as appropriate, in decisions and choices may help them feel in control.

Ages 12 and up

Adolescents have more advanced reasoning skills and cognitive abilities than younger children. Answering their questions honestly and keeping the lines of communication open is more appropriate.

Unsolicited advice and alternative treatments

Anyone who’s experienced a serious health event or who has a chronic condition has probably run into the well-meaning friend, or even a stranger, who knows someone who cured your issue with essential oils, teas, or juices.

Consider rehearsing some reactions that feel authentic to you but can be quickly used when starting down an unhelpful conversational path. Maybe facts about your disease, the efficacy of alternative versus conventional treatments, or a brief synopsis of your treatment plan. You could also change the subject or simply say: “I’m happy with the treatment plan my doctors have put together and I’m confident in their years of experience.”

Sharing information about your illness or condition can prompt other people to tell you they have been through the same experience. If you're interested, you could gather information about what has been helpful for them, their treatment, and what to expect.

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More to explore

1."Preparing a Child for the Death of a Parent or Loved One," American Cancer Society, September 15, 2022, 2. "How to Talk with Children about Serious Illness & Death," Hospice Red River Valley,

This information is general in nature and provided for educational purposes only.