Delivering The News

Emotional Care - December 31, 2012

Someone recently asked me for advice on the best way to tell others that they have cancer; they wanted tips on the most comforting ways they could deliver the difficult news. Unfortunately I have a lot of experience delivering "bad news". First, I had to notify friends and family that my husband had cancer. Then I had to let people know that the cancer spread and was terminal. Finally even though most people heard from others I also was the one to let some people know that my husband passed away. More than a year after his death sometimes distant colleagues have not heard the news and I've had to tell them what happened. Even in our modern era of instant mass communication it is surprising how often I had to personally give someone the difficult news.

I believe the person asking for my advice was doing so because they wanted help finding the best words that would minimize the impact of the news. The advice I gave to the individual was rather simple: don't worry about the other person and to do what is most comfortable for you. If you or a loved one has a major illness you can sometimes find yourself worrying about how that difficult news will impact others in your life. While it is usually a good idea to think about others' feelings, this is one situation in life where it really is fine to think only of yourself. It's important to focus on your emotional needs because it will help keep you strong for dealing with the illness.

Basically there is no right or wrong way to do it, only the way that will work for each individual. However I did learn a few things through trial and error that made it a bit more comfortable for all involved when delivering the news one on one.

First, I found it helpful to be very blunt and to the point with the news. Early on I tried to make small talk and simple conversation prior to saying the big news thinking it would be helpful to "ease into" the bad part. The reality is people can tell when you're making small talk to avoid a difficult topic so it only makes them more nervous. I found it best to simply say hello and then quickly tell the person very bluntly "I'm sorry but I'm calling with bad news, the cancer has spread." By getting the news right out there you allow the other person to immediately react and then ask questions that will help them mentally process the news. Try to give them as much detailed and factual information that you have and feel comfortable sharing with that person. Learning all the facts and details often comforts the other person. This also allows them to ask questions, which often eases their anxiety.

After telling immediate family and very close friends, I found it very helpful to send out mass emails and to post information online to let most people know the difficult news. It may seem a bit impersonal but it was so much easier for me to write it up and click a few buttons and know that everyone was up to date. We wanted people to be aware but didn't want to drain ourselves emotionally delivering the news again and again. People appreciated getting the information and no one ever indicated any concern about how the news was delivered. And even if it was sometimes challenging for people to get the news in a less personal way, it was best for the patient and his caretaker which is what mattered most.

Even when you are keeping others up to date with progress of treatments and the news is good, you may find it challenging to continually report all the details to others. It's not only the bad news that is sometimes emotionally taxing to deliver. My advice is to find a way that works for you. It may be easier to inform one close friend or family member and have them be responsible for letting others know. You may find mass emails or social media is the best path for you. And it may bring you comfort to personally call and visit others to deliver the news one on one. My advice to you is to think about the method that will be workable for you and choose that path.