When is the best time to talk and tell someone that you or a loved one has a serious or life threatening illness? When is the best time to talk?

Our first instinct when we hear bad news is to protect our loved ones and avoid making time to talk. However, this isn’t always the best approach, particularly if this means we exclude them from knowing what is happening.

When my daughter was seven years old, her Grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer. My decision was to make time to talk to my daughter using age appropriate language she would understand. I told her that her Grandma had a poorly chest and she needed an operation to make her feel better. I explained that next time she saw her Grandma, she would need to be gentle around her as she would feel sore. The word cancer wasn’t used in the conversation as this term could lead to misunderstanding. Her Grandma made a full recovery.  When my daughter was older, I explained what breast cancer was.

A few years later, my Mother in Law was diagnosed with lung cancer. At the time, she chose to tell us that she had a benign growth in her lung. We presume she did this to protect us from the upsetting truth. This was despite us being in our forties! It soon became clear she had cancer when she started chemotherapy. At this point we were able to offer her support. We could have done this from the start, had she trusted us with the truth by taking time to talk.

When we don’t talk to our loved ones about our health, we prevent them from understanding what is really going on. We miss an opportunity to enlist their support. The message is ‘I don’t trust you with this information’. This can be so hurtful and can lead to missed opportunities. I recently heard that one daughter, again in her forties, wasn’t told her Dad was poorly with a life threatening disease. He died before she could see him. She missed the opportunity to spend precious time with him and tell him she loved him.

In the last month, my husband has been undergoing tests to determine if he has cancer. He still as yet doesn’t have a full diagnosis, although he has been told he will need an operation and/or radiotherapy, meaning months of treatment. As soon as we knew he had a health issue, I encouraged him to tell our daughter. Despite his instinct to protect her, he talked to our daughter immediately and was pleasantly surprised at how mature and supportive her reaction was. This conversation continues, giving her time to process each step of information.

My theory is that when we trust others by making time to talk and telling them the truth about our health, most of the time, we are rewarded by their love and support. They in turn have time to understand, ask questions and find a way to make sense of the information, even as we’re going through this process ourselves. It’s not the easy thing to do, but I’ve seen the benefits of this approach many times. My recommendation – take time to talk.