A woman faces two difficult kinds of conversation on both sides: a diagnosis from her doctor, and the various reactions of friends and loved ones to her news.

You Can’t Handle the Truth: Dealing With Other People’s Emotions About Your Diagnosis

One of the most difficult things about finding out you have cancer is not the moment you hear it from your doctor, it’s the moment you have to tell the people you love. Hearing it is horrible but saying the words out loud is a sucker punch right in your heart. Seeing the pain in your loved ones' eyes is heartbreaking and something that will cause people to react in very strange ways.

A diagnosis and every emotion that goes along with it

Throughout this whole rollercoaster ride of being diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma (then re-diagnosed to stage 3B), still one of the most surprising things is how other people handle the news. Over the past few months, I’ve become a teacher, a therapist, a lawyer and had to put on a brave smile for those around me.

Different diagnosis reactions

I’ve put people into 5 categories according to their reactions:

  1. The Silver Lining – The kind of people who want you to see the positive side, easily identified by the well-meaning but ill-advised "Well, it could be a lot worse/let’s look on the bright side." These people are often saying things to make themselves feel better and they are not ideal in the early stages but can be helpful once you have sorted through your own emotions.
  2. The Projector – These people project how they WOULD feel onto you and expect you to feel the same way. Often found saying "Oh are you devastated/I would be so upset/I seem to be more upset than you are."
  3. The Leeches – These are the loved ones and sometimes casual acquaintances who can’t say anything because they can’t stop crying and you end up comforting them. I think of them as emotional leeches.
  4. The Shocker – "OMG I don’t know what to say/OMG I can’t believe it/this can’t be happening." These are the people who genuinely don’t know what to say, so they don’t end up saying much of anything and leave you feeling very awkward...yep it’s happening.
  5. The Empathiser – These are the people you should seek out and surround yourself with. They say things like "I love you/I am here/if you need to talk to someone, I’m here to listen/let me know if I can do anything/tell me how you are feeling."

When I was first diagnosed, if I was confronted with any 1-4’s I would leave the conversation upset and angry on the inside, thinking, ‘how dare you say that to me, how could you be so insensitive.’ But in reality, there is no perfect way to respond, no one knows what to say.

How to cope with reactions to your diagnosis

What has helped me process people’s reactions is three things:

Know their intent

No one who loves you would ever set out to hurt you, everyone means well. So, once I put that into perceptive, I was able to feel lighter about their reactions.

Control the impact of their words

You can’t control what people say, but you can control how you let it make you feel. One of the most important things I have learned in my life is that you can’t change people or the things they do and say, but what you can control is YOU. Don’t allow the misguided things people say derail your mood, and if you can’t do that, then stop putting yourself in the position to be around those people and opening up a dialogue.

Tell people how you want to be treated

Early on in my diagnosis one of my friends said to me “how best can I support you” and that changed everything for me. I told her exactly how I wanted her to communicate with me and how often. From there I decided to tell everyone in my life, "I know you are coming from a good place, but this is how I want to be supported" and they respected that.

Overall, communication is the key. Looking after your mental wellbeing is one of the most important things you can do in this process and that takes work! So be open and honest with the people around you and don’t expect everyone to do what you need because everyone is different.

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