“Coming Out” with Cancer – Breaking It To Your Friends

Screen Shot 2014-01-07 at 6 29 42 PMLBBC blogger Nikki Black was diagnosed last year with breast cancer at the age of 23. Here she discusses how she handled revealing her diagnosis to those close to her, and what she learned while doing so.

When I received the phone call from my doctor, I knew immediately she was about to give me the Bad News. Her long sigh and tight voice over the phone told me long before her actual words that I had tested positive for breast cancer.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “It’s hard, when the patient is so young.” Tell me about it.

As a young woman dealing with breast cancer, it can be difficult to break the news to your friends for a number of reasons – not the least of which is reliving the shock and sadness that comes with that diagnosis with every new phone call you make. I worried about how people would react and who was appropriate to tell. I worried that people would be upset with me for not telling them sooner, or telling them after I had told another person. I added anxiety on top of anxiety on top of that diagnosis during a time when I should have been focused on accepting the news myself.

So, if I can, I’d like to spare anyone this anxiety and share what I’ve personally learned about “coming out” with cancer to your friends.

You don’t owe this news to anyone. There is no rulebook that says you absolutely have to let everyone in your life know everything (or anything) that is going on with you healthwise. There is an intimacy to medical health, especially with something as life-altering as cancer. You don’t have to tell anybody, and you especially don’t have to tell anybody right this second. That said, friends can provide an amazing support group and help you through some of the tough times ahead, and I would certainly encourage you to lean on your trusted comrades when you’re too tired to keep going it alone. Just be sure that when you break the news, you’re doing it for yourself, and don’t worry about taking too long, feeling guilty about telling this person and not that person, or any other trivial anxiety that sets up camp in your brain. These are your friends; they’re not going to judge you for dealing with the news on your own terms.

Tell people exactly what you need from them. One of the scariest parts of breaking the news is the fear that somehow suddenly you will be treated like a social pariah. As a young woman with cancer, the fear that your peers will not know how to treat you, and may avoid you because of this, is very real. Because young women have young friends, many of these people may have limited experience with cancer, or have seen it in older people but are unsure how to treat someone nearer their own age dealing with the disease.

One of my friends, when he first found out, apologized in advance if he treated me differently, because his father had died of lung cancer, so my recent diagnosis hit home for him. He then offered to buy me a beer, which I promptly refused. “I don’t want your cancer-pity beer,” I joked, attempting to return things to a state of normalcy. After a few bumpy starts, eventually people got used to the idea of me having cancer and, while still being sympathetic to my current situation, treating me more like myself than somebody who had suddenly become a stranger because of the diagnosis.

My point is this: if you want to be treated normally, tell people. If you want to accept free beers (or free anything else), by all means, go for it. If you need somebody to text you every day just to check up on you, let them know. Again, these are your friends and they will more than likely be happy to help any way that they can- but they can’t know how to interact with you appropriately until you tell them.

Social media is a double-edged sword. Because I am also a stand-up comedian and chose to start doing comedy about my diagnosis a mere week after it occurred, I thought a good way to let my larger pool of friends and acquaintances know that I had been diagnosed would be through a short, explanatory post accompanied by a video of the set. This worked well for me because the comedy managed to cut through much of the tough conversations I would have otherwise had to have with these people at a time when I was just worn out from having my fill of tough conversations. While I was off the hook for more one-on-one explanatory conversations, I now had to deal with the firestorm of comments, questions and messages that accompanied this post. Don’t get me wrong- many of those messages were heartfelt, touching, and gave me confidence moving forward in this journey. However, some days it just felt like it was too much to handle, especially during the days leading up to my mastectomy. So, if your phone is going off so much it’s giving you a panic attack and you can’t keep up with the messages flooding your inbox… don’t. Disconnect and center yourself. There is nothing wrong with taking time for yourself and letting some of those messages go unanswered.

People will say stupid things. This seems so obvious to me now, but it was probably what I was least prepared for when I decided to be open about my diagnosis. Breast cancer is, unfortunately, one of the most sexualized forms of cancer, so you can expect to get some less-than-savoury comments and intrusive questions about your diagnosis, reconstruction (if you opt for it) and how hard it will be for others (usually of the male gender)  to deal with the loss of your once-fabulous boobs. The best way to handle these comments is to explain that they are offensive and why they are offensive, because they are most likely a defense mechanism somebody is unwittingly using to deal with the reality of your situation. Don’t stand for it, but understand that it isn’t always coming from a completely bad place.
So, those are my ins and outs of “coming out” with cancer. The important thing is to do what makes you feel comfortable and to let people know how you’d like to be treated. I’m curious, have any of you had similar experiences? Let me know in the comments!

Nikki Black is a stand up comedian living and writing in Philadelphia. She enjoys tea, anime and anything by Neil Gaiman. To learn more about Nikki or to watch her stand up videos visit her blog

Interested in attending our conference for young women diagnosed before the age of 45? Learn more about C4YW here. 

7 thoughts on ““Coming Out” with Cancer – Breaking It To Your Friends

  1. Pingback: Weekly Round Up | Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer

  2. While it’s wrong on many levels that you have to deal with this at such a young age, I’m so glad to read your wise words. People typically don’t know how to deal with our diagnoses, especially if they themselves have never come up against it. I love all of your advice.

    Patty: my advice to you, if I may, is to be proactive with your mother-in-law. Don’t ask her what she needs, bc she may not know. Don’t sat, let me know if you need anything! bc she may not want to ask. Instead, just do something: vacuum her house, water her plants, walk her dog if she has one, tell her you’ll bring dinner once a week, send her funny cards or interesting articles. Bring her flowers (a grocery store bouquet in a vase or even a pretty tin can). Tell her about your day or a new restaurant you tried or ask her advice on something. Distract her. Let her talk about her diagnosis if she wants. Make her laugh. Hope that helps.

  3. My favourite piece of advice in your post (esp. since I don’t often hear this) is that there’s no obligation to tell everyone. Even if you do share publically, there’s no rule everyone needs to know – and I like that you pointed it out. Takes the pressure off.

  4. I love your post. Very wise words, especially, not feeling like you have to tell everyone everything about your medical situation. All your points are words to live by. Thank you.

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