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How to Talk to Loved Ones About Late-Stage Ovarian Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on July 25, 2022

Finding out you have last-stage ovarian cancer can be overwhelming. As you go through your cancer journey, you realize you can’t do it alone. You need and want to rely on a support system that includes close family and friends.

But how do you talk about your diagnosis? And how do you prepare for the different reactions you’re going to get? Some people may react with shock and silence. Others may get nervous and sometimes say the wrong thing. You have to focus on what benefits you and have a plan for how to deal with what may not be healthy for you to hear.

Work Through Your Feelings First

Learning your late-stage ovarian cancer may not have the best prognosis is often very upsetting. Take as much time as you need to come to terms with your emotions. You may feel angry, scared, nervous, and uncertain about what lies ahead. And you may not be looking forward to explaining to others how the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. These feelings are completely normal. You will likely have several questions you want answered before you’re ready to share your diagnosis with others.

To understand what having late-stage ovarian cancer means it may include asking your doctor questions like:

  • What does advanced cancer mean for me?
  • How long will I live?
  • Which treatment options are available for me, and how could they help me?

You may have questions about chemotherapy, radiation, and clinical trials, as well as the known side effects of treatments. Studies show that asking these questions often leads to a better quality of life for the patient. If you choose not to treat your ovarian cancer, you may want information about palliative care. That focuses on providing relief from symptoms and stress of your condition. Getting comfortable with your diagnosis and prognosis is important, so when you decide to tell family and friends, you’ve armed yourself with information.

Telling Family and Friends Is a Personal Decision

The decision to share your diagnosis is one that requires internal strength and openness. It is a personal decision, and your emotions may flare up every time you tell a family member or friend.

“After receiving a late-stage cancer diagnosis, the best way to prepare for discussions with friends and family is to first think about what you want to say,” says Felicity Harper, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Michigan. “A brief discussion of the facts – here is my diagnosis, this is my treatment plan, and here’s what to expect – can start the conversation, allowing people to ask follow-up or clarifying questions about the basic information.”

The key is to make this difficult process as easy as you can:

  • Make a list of which family members and friends you’d like to tell in person.
  • Make a second list of others you’d like to know, but you might want someone else you’ve chosen to give them the news.
  • Think about co-workers, including whether you want to tell them and how much you want to share.
  • Above all, don’t feel pressured to tell everyone.

Make sure you practice self-care as you let others know. This may include taking time for meditation, sleep, reading, or hobbies that remind you of your everyday life.

How to Talk to Family and Friends

You may choose to tell a close family member first, like your spouse or partner, your parents, siblings, and children. Know that one approach may not fit all people or situations.

Try to open the conversation gradually, using language like, “I have to tell you something that is difficult,” or “You know I haven’t been feeling well. I’ve had some tests and found out why.” You can do this in person, over the phone, or via email. Pick the way of communicating that feels best for you.

Understand that people may ask for specific details. But, you’re in control of the details you want to share. If certain people push for more information, you can politely say, “I’m not comfortable or ready to answer that question.”

Think about what is most important for you to say to your loved ones and make that a central focus of the conversation. Some may react with a long silence. They might not know what to say. But, that doesn’t mean you’re required to fill the space with words. If silence makes you feel uncomfortable, then it’s fine to ask, “What are you thinking about?”

The key is to be honest and open about your feelings and ask for the support you need, depending on the relationship.

How to Talk to Children

It’s not easy talking to children about a cancer diagnosis. They will likely have many questions. And they might not be able to wrap their minds around what it means.

Children can often sense something is wrong. It’s important to tell them what’s happening honestly, but in a sensitive way. You may have to tailor your conversation based on the age and personality of your child.

“The conversation will evolve into an ongoing conversation,” says Allison Forti, PhD, associate teaching professor of the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University. “They process the information and develop questions over time. Initiate the conversation when you feel emotionally strong enough to keep the focus on the children, and support them. This conversation in all likelihood will be emotional and it’s OK to cry and communicate your emotions. But, do so in a way that the children know they have your support.”

Reassure them that you’re getting the best care, but that there will be days when you won’t be feeling like yourself. For young children, you’ll need to explain things in a way that they can understand. If they move on from the topic, that’s fine. Be ready to answer questions they may have later on. With kids who are a little older, you may have to stress that on some days you might not be able to do everything you used to do.

Why It May Be a Good Idea to Tell Others About Your Diagnosis

You may view yourself as strong, but don’t let that stop you from relying on a close circle of family and friends. “Even the most resilient people can experience a variety of emotions after a cancer diagnosis including sadness, anger, frustration, panic, and even denial. It is important to identify the people in your life that can fill the various roles throughout your cancer journey; support you when you are feeling overwhelmed, down, or anxious; and can listen when you need to talk,” Harper says.

Even if you may not want to open up, you may be “surprised by who shows up in a supportive way once a diagnosis is disclosed. During this hard time, it can be nice to know how much you mean to others and receive their love and support,” Forti says.

Having a social network can provide you with comfort in unexpected ways. “Communication is really key because patients’ mental and emotional well-being can have a direct impact on clinical outcomes,” Harper says. Setting expectations and limits on how much and when to talk about how you’re doing can help patients feel in control of the situation.

It’s OK to Get Outside Help for Support

You’ll have ups and downs. During times when you feel particularly upset, you may want to set up some time to talk to someone not directly involved in the situation, like a psychologist or therapist. They may give you a viewpoint others can’t. Also, talking to a palliative care specialist will help prepare you for any end-of-life questions that loved ones can’t answer.

“Mental health services should always be a part of routine cancer care because we want patients focused on their treatment and a positive outcome, not the stress and worry that often accompanies the diagnosis. As mental health professionals, we want patients to understand that cancer, while often being overwhelming and scary, does not need to take over your life,” Harper says.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Felicity Harper, PhD, clinical psychologist, Karmanos Cancer Institute, Detroit, MI.

Allison Forti, PhD, associate teaching professor, Department of Counseling, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC; Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor.

American Cancer Society: “Telling Others About Your Cancer.”

Michigan Medicine: “End-of-Life Care Remains Aggressive for People With Ovarian Cancer.”

National Cancer Institute: “Talking to Others about Your Advanced Cancer,” “Questions to Ask Your Doctor about Your Advanced Cancer.”

MacMillan Cancer Support: “How to Tell People You Have Cancer.”

Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance: “Inspired Advice: How Do You Discuss Your Diagnosis with Your Children and/or Grandchildren?”

Cancer Research UK: “Coping if your ovarian cancer can’t be cured,” “Talking to children about cancer.”

UpToDate: “Patient Education: Ovarian cancer (The Basics).” “Patient Education: Ovarian cancer diagnosis and staging (Beyond the Basics).”

Center to Advance Palliative Care: “About Palliative Care.”

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