How to Tell People Your Cancer Has Returned

No one wants to have this conversation, but these tips will help you navigate a challenging scenario.

By Jessica Lawlor

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Talking about cancer isn’t easy, especially when it comes to sharing difficult news about a diagnosis with loved ones.

These conversations can become more complicated and emotional when a patient has to share the news that his or her cancer has returned.

Sharing the News

Stephanie R. Moore, DNP, APRN, ACNS-BC, an Advanced Practice Provider and Clinical Nurse Specialist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Tulsa, Oklahoma has some advice for those preparing to tell loved ones about a cancer recurrence.

“My primary role when I work with patients going through a recurrence is to listen, and provide them with a safe and secure place to share,” Moore explains. “One individual I worked with did not know what to share after a recurrence, so we discussed her priorities for sharing, and the purpose behind the information. She was able to then decide who and what to share with others.”

Moore says it’s important to remember that every patient is different, and their relationships with their spouse, children, friends and coworkers will vary, too. This can change the way difficult news is announced, along with when it’s shared.

“Cancer changes the person, and managing a reoccurrence will be a different experience for each person.  There may be times when anxiety, stress and even depression are part of the journey and this is when it is helpful to have a spokesperson who can answer questions and be the patient’s voice for others,” Moore explains.

Attitude is Everything

Ursula Hull, 56, from Memphis, TN, has had to initiate these challenging conversations more times than she’d prefer.

Her cancer story spans 14 years and two recurrences.

After an initial diagnosis of lung cancer in 2004, Ursula thought she was in the clear after surgery, treatment and four years of positive news at checkups. Then in 2008, she had a recurrence that had metastasized to her brain.

“That was disappointing. I went into that doctor’s visit with high hopes,” Ursula explains.

The recurrence was difficult on her family.

“It was hard to tell my kids. My youngest son (now 18) was really young then, and my oldest son (now 26) was about to graduate from high school,” Ursula says. “My youngest took it really hard; he was always afraid I was going to die.”

But Ursula had one important tool at her disposal: her attitude.

“I could never feel bad or drown in my sorrows. I told myself, ‘OK, Lord, I gotta put on my fighting gloves because I have kids,’” she explains.

Ursula was determined to stay positive.

Her inner circle—a weekly women’s group—admired her strength. Ursula recalls them telling her they couldn’t even tell she was sick.

A friend once asked her, “Do you think about dying?” Ursula replied, “No, I think about living.”

It’s All About Timing

Timing is key when it comes to telling friends and family about a recurrence, according to Moore.

“Be thoughtful, and don’t rush into sharing information,” she advises. “It may take time for an individual to decide what to share, who to share it with and when to share.”

Moore says timing can vary, and depending on the type of treatment needed, a patient may wish to wait to share until they’ve regained strength.

She also recommends designating a “spokesperson” to keep loved ones in the loop.

“It can be tiring for a patient to answer multiple questions from family and friends,” Moore explains. “A spokesperson can provide support and assist in decreasing anxiety.”

Work Through the Challenges

While Ursula aims to keep it positive, she admits it’s not always easy.

“Going through treatment can be hard on your relationships,” she explains. “You’re not the same person.”

Two years ago, Ursula and her husband, a major part of her support system throughout diagnosis and treatment, decided to end their marriage.

“I knew cancer contributed to my relationship,” Ursula says. “Everything becomes about you, and even if your partner is going through something, the people in your life tend to focus on what you’re going through.”

Ursula admits that sometimes a partner doesn’t get the support or treatment they need as a caregiver. She advises others in a similar situation to pull the focus away from you from time to time to concentrate on those you love and what they also might be experiencing.

“Have that encouragement for them,” she offers.

Let Your Strength Inspire Others

At the end of the day, Ursula strives to be a beacon of hope for others. Even though she is still fighting her latest recurrence, she believes a positive attitude has helped her and her loved ones face cancer.

“Don’t let what you’re going through kill your joy. Even when your body is changing and you’re in pain, you have to try to see the positive in everything,” Ursula advises. “The negative will pull you down.”

Ursula says when she tells her story, she tries to stay upbeat. She explains that people tend to react better when they see you being positive, and it makes it easier to share.

She recalls telling her colleagues at work about the recurrence. A coworker she wasn’t particularly close with told Ursula that her story gave her the courage and motivation to cope with a cancer diagnosis for someone very close to her—her mother.

“I had no idea my story and my attitude had impacted my coworker in this way,” Ursula explains. “Knowing that helps me.”

No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.



  • Edna Baptiste

    Attitude is everything! Thanks for sharing!