How to discuss a new medical condition with family and friends

Part of coping with a new medical condition includes sharing the news with family members and friends, and sometimes the idea of that conversation can be stressful. Lorena Llamas, a licensed master social worker at the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center, shares tips for how to prepare for that conversation.

For patients

Llamas recommends choosing a safe space where you can have the conversation without interruption. Decide if you want to tell a group of family or friends all at once or if you would prefer to tell one person at a time. If you prefer, you can also designate one family member or friend who can share the news with others.

“Start by sharing what you feel comfortable sharing,” Llamas said. “Be truthful, and stick to the facts.”

Ask friends and family what they already know about your condition so you can clear up any misconceptions. She advises writing down the information that you want to share so that you don’t forget any details. Before you begin the conversation, Llamas recommends identifying potential trigger points and defining your boundaries.

“There may be questions you don’t want to answer just yet,” Llamas said. “It’s ok to say: Sorry, I don’t want to talk about that right now.”

Llamas says patients often feel hesitant to talk about their diagnosis with others, but she encourages her patients to open to friends and family.

“Sometimes patients feel alone, but sharing their experience with others can help,” Llamas said. “It can be therapeutic to talk about it.”

For friends and family

Llamas reminds family and friends to always be respectful of their loved one sharing news about an illness. Don’t push someone to give more information than they’re ready to share. Additionally, she urges family and friends not to feel pressure to come up with something to say.

“As human beings, we tend to hate awkward silences, and so we’ll try to fill it in,” Llamas said. “If you’re shocked and don’t have anything to say, it’s ok. Sometimes just being present, holding their hand or offering a hug can say more than words could say.”

Leave the medical information to the experts; don’t try to do your own research about your loved one’s illness online. Often, the internet will lead you to the worst-case scenario. Every person’s case and treatment plan are different, so do not assume that you can diagnose and treat your loved one. If family or friends would like to know more about their loved one’s diagnosis, they can reach out to their social worker or care team for accredited resources that will help explain their diagnosis in further details.

Finding support

Llamas reminds the patients she works with that they should not be afraid to ask for help or support. If a family member or friend is offering to help, take them up on it and let them know what you need.

“It could be giving you a ride to the clinic, attending an infusion appointment with you or taking care of your dog while you’re in the hospital,” Llamas said. “Let them know how you need help. You’re not alone in this process.”

She also encourages patients and their family, friends and caregivers to seek out support groups. For patients, there are often support groups for specific diagnoses that can connect you with others in the same situation.

“It helps to talk to someone who can relate to what you’re feeling and going through,” Llamas said. “When you are diagnosed with a major illness like cancer, it can be hard to feel normal. Finding common ground with someone else can help to normalize your feelings and let you know you’re not alone.”

By Molly Chiu

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