How To Talk to Family and Friends About a Major Medical Diagnosis

If you’ve recently received a major medical diagnosis, you’re likely going through lots of emotions. You may also be thinking about how you’re going to tell your family and friends. This serious news is hard enough to process already, and it can still be difficult to let others know.

If you’re looking for support and ideas on how to approach these conversations, we’re here to help. Keep reading for communication tips and things to consider when telling your family about a major medical diagnosis.

Take Time to Process Your Diagnosis First

Before reaching out to family members and friends about your diagnosis, it’s important to first make sure you take time for yourself. Take a few days or a week to sit with the information you’ve just received. Let yourself feel the full spectrum of your emotions — it’s normal to feel anxious and fearful and deny that you’ve been diagnosed with a serious condition.

Some people find it helpful to start journaling to get their thoughts and feelings out on paper. Buy yourself a new journal and keep it nearby throughout your day. Alternatively, you can set aside some time each morning or evening to write about what’s on your mind. You can also try creating voice memos on your cell phone if you prefer talking rather than writing.

If someone close to you was present for your diagnosis, you can also talk to them. Ask them to sit and lend a listening ear, or even just keep you company while you process what has happened. Once you’re able to organize your thoughts and feelings around your diagnosis, you can then talk to family and friends about it.

Research Your Diagnosis If You’d Like

Some people find power in knowing as much about their diagnosis as they can. Others would rather learn only what’s on a need-to-know basis. If you’d like, take to the internet to do some searching. Get information from reliable sources, like:

  • Your doctor or healthcare team
  • Major hospitals, such as Cleveland Clinic or Mayo Clinic
  • Government websites, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Nonprofit organizations for people living with your diagnosis

Researching your diagnosis arms you with knowledge for later conversations with family and friends.

Create a List of What You’d Like To Talk About

In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to forget what you’d like to say. Take time to make a list of the topics you want to discuss when meeting with family and friends. Write down important information or answers to questions you think might be asked.

If you’d like to maintain some privacy for the time being, it’s also fine to give general details about your health and diagnosis. Keep in mind that you control the conversation and get to choose what you share about your life.

Starting a Conversation with Family and Friends

After you’ve taken the time to prepare, you’ll want to set up a meeting with family and friends. This can be done one-on-one or in a group setting, depending on what you’re comfortable with. At the meeting, start by informing everyone of your diagnosis and give the details you feel are appropriate. Answer any questions you’re able to or want to, setting boundaries as much as you’d like.

Expect that some family and friends will react in different ways to the news. Some may be sad, angry, or frustrated. It’s important to note that you can’t control how they react. They may need time, like you did, to process the diagnosis.

Asking for Help

Some people struggle with the overwhelming responses of family and friends in the wake of a diagnosis. For many, pity makes them feel worse about their current situation. Advocate for yourself and explain that these sentiments aren’t helping your situation. Instead, ask them to stand beside you in strength and offer a helping hand.

Receiving a major medical diagnosis is devastating, but you don’t have to face it alone. After meeting with family and friends, start a list of who has offered to help. Use it to build a support network of people you trust moving forward. Taking over tasks like running errands, walking your dog, or driving you to doctor’s appointments makes a big impact.

Handling Unsolicited Advice

Some family members or friends may try offering unsolicited advice or help that you don’t want or need yet. You can thank them for the offer but let them know that you’re fine at the time. Explain to them that your doctor and healthcare team are responsible for your treatment plan and you’ll be following their instructions. You can also offer to do your own research on the matter and come to your own conclusions. The family member or friend may mean well but remember — you’re in control of your own health.

Talking to Family and Friends About a Major Medical Diagnosis Banner

By Emily Wagner

Emily earned a Bachelor of Science in biotechnology from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2018 and a Master of Science in biomedical sciences with a focus in pharmacology from University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in 2020. During her thesis work, she studied non-small cell lung cancer and how the immune system plays a role in response to different treatments. Emily feels privileged to use her research acumen and scientific mind to write about topics that advance the health and wellbeing of others. She currently lives in Colorado where she enjoys the mountains, spending time with her dog, baking, and reading a good book.