Hester Hill Schnipper ​​Photo courtesy of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Many people are open to sharing the details of their cancer diagnosis with just about anyone—even strangers in a grocery line. Some choose to tell only close family members and friends about their diagnosis. Others struggle to even say the words aloud.

Sometimes, the nature of your cancer treatment determines what you must tell. If your treatments don’t interfere with daily routines, it could be possible to keep the information confidential. If you need time away from your regular life or if treatment affects your physical appearance, however, it may be more difficult to be silent.

Consider how much information you want to share in three major spheres of life: personal, professional and on social media channels such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. In our personal lives, we may worry that divulging the cancer news will change relationships. For the workplace, there are laws to protect those with health conditions from overt discrimination, but you and your employer will likely need to discuss adjustments you will require as you go through cancer treatment. Finally, social media has changed everything about how we share personal information. Once you mention your cancer on social media, you lose some control over who sees it.

Here are 10 things to consider:

  1. Remember that once you’ve said it, you can’t take it back. It is always better to wait if you​ are unsure about sharing the news.
  2. Think carefully about how much you want to say. You don’t need to divulge all the details of your diagnosis, prognosis and treatment unless you want to. It is perfectly appropriate to respond to questions with “I don’t want to go into all of that” or “I would rather not talk more about it.”
  3. Be sure to tell those closest to you first; you want them to hear about your diagnosis directly from you. You should assume that even those sworn to secrecy will tell others about what is happening.
  4. If you have children, you may want to speak with teachers or counselors at their schools. People who interact with your children on a daily basis can provide extra support and watch out for any signs of distress or behavioral changes.
  5. Most people will want to help. If you don’t tell them, they can’t support you.
  6. If you have concerns about how this will be handled at work, speak first with someone in human resources. Then, when you speak with your manager, you will know the rules and can advocate for what you need. Cancerandcareers.org is a great resource.
  7. When you speak with your manager, concentrate on the impact your treatments may have on your work. How much time do you anticipate missing? What accommodations do you need? Is it possible to reduce your hours, work from home or take some days off?
  8. Be clear with your manager about what health information you want shared with others.
  9. Think about the ripple effects of sharing your health updates on social media. Remember, this information can live in cyberspace forever. Some websites, such as lotsahelpinghands.com and caringbridge.org, offer a way for patients and caregivers to share updates with selected friends and family members.
  10. Always remember that you are in charge of the information you share and that your primary job is to take care of yourself as you move through cancer.  

Hester Hill Schnipper, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a breast cancer survivor who served as the manager of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.