How to Tell Someone You Have Cancer

By Heather Millar

The other day, I was talking to my 14 year-old daughter's friend, and we were discussing hair. She has beautiful, thick wavy hair, but she was complaining about it (I think it was a rainy day, which can wreak havoc on curls).

I have incredibly straight hair. So this is the dumb thing I said, "I had cancer five years ago. I kept most of my hair, but the hair I did lose grew back curly. I had this crazy wavy hair for about a year. I never realized how uncontrollable curls are."

The teen gave me a quizzical look. I'd just dropped a whammy: "I had cancer." But then shifted to the trivial: "Wow, hair can be a pain can't it?"

You'd think after five years, I'd be better at this sort of thing. But I find that I still blow it on a fairly regular basis - mentioning cancer casually in passing, or telling someone who barely knows me, if at all.

But my first blooper was probably the worst. I'd only been diagnosed three days before. I was putting my kid on a plane to join a friend in New England and then go to camp. I had planned on driving her, but had to stay in town for various diagnostic tests. My daughter and I were in the boarding area at the airport. Then 9 years old, she was completely psyched to be going on a plane all by herself for the first time, to be going to join her best friend, to be going to camp.

As we waited for the boarding call, we started chatting with another mother and her three kids, talking about how lovely coastal New England is - sandy summers with boardwalks and fried clams and lobster and warm nights. Then I just blurted out, "Actually, I'm not going. I'm sending my daughter to be with friends. I was just diagnosed with breast cancer."

The other mother looked horrified. She said nothing more until she and her brood boarded the plane. Looking back, I can hardly blame her. I'd pushed this heavy, personal, gigantic thing-CANCER-into her summer afternoon. She didn't know me. She was just going on vacation with her kids. I might just as well have started talking about murder, or war atrocities or something like that. Her head just wasn't there.

So, I'm not perfect at telling people about my cancer experience. But let me assure you that I do not walk around constantly horrifying everyone I meet with tales of mouth sores and chemo nausea. I do try to be more sensitive. Most of the time.

When it comes to telling someone you have cancer, I've learned the best thing to say is, "I have cancer." The trick is when, and in what context.

Here are some things I've learned (and mostly try to do):

• Think about the person you're addressing. Is this someone close to you, someone who loves you, or at least someone you know? How will this knowledge affect them? If it's someone that would want to know about this big thing that's happening to you (i.e. not some lady you just met at the airport), then say, "I have cancer."

• Think about the personality of the person you're telling, and where you are at the time you want to tell that person. If it's your very emotional sister-in-law, for instance, try to tell her in a quiet, private place where she can wail or whatever she does to express her emotions. If it's your matter-of-fact workout partner or golfing buddy, you can probably choose any old place.

• Tell people not only on a "need to know" basis, but a "want to know" basis. Your friends and family and some of your work colleagues will probably need and want to know. Your letter carrier probably doesn't.

Above all, follow your gut. Tell the people you want to tell. Be direct. It works most of the time. And when you get it wrong, don't be too hard on yourself. After all, you've bigger things on your mind.

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