Telling Older Parents About Your Breast Cancer: How to Deliver the News

Patient Expert

You’ve just been diagnosed with breast cancer. The median age for a breast cancer diagnosis is 61, so chances are you’re an older woman, a woman who’s probably raised a family and is starting to look to retirement.

Chances are also good that your parents are still alive. They’re in their 80s or 90s, most likely slowing down both physically and mentally, as well as becoming frailer emotionally. You notice they need more and more help with everything, from housekeeping to financial chores to organizing medical appointments. Suddenly, your lifelong roles have flipped: you’re the caretaker, they’re the “children.”

How do you tell your parents you have cancer?

First, decide whether to share the news

Some women think their parents are better off not knowing about their cancer. This may be an acceptable choice if the cancer is early stage and the treatment is minimal, especially if the folks live far away and you’re unlikely to see them regularly; why worry them unnecessarily?

But think hard before you make this choice; if anyone else in your family is likely to know about your cancer, there’s a good chance the news will wend its way back to your parents. Better they should hear it from you up front, than from Aunt Sally via your cousin two months later.

One instance in which it’s probably best not to share a cancer diagnosis: when a parent is suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease or is otherwise unable to process what you might say. There’s no sense adding to their confusion with your bad news.

Next, consider how to deliver the message

While a Facebook message may be the best way to relay your cancer news to friends, this probably isn’t the best way for your parents. Though many in the World War II “Greatest Generation” have become technologically savvy, social media is still a challenge; and email may feel cold.

Your parents will probably prefer hearing your news in person, if possible; since in their heart you’re still a child, they’ll want to offer immediate physical comfort. If meeting in person isn’t possible, a phone call is your next best choice; your parents probably view the telephone as their preferred method of communication.

Finally, many older parents are still most comfortable with written letters, especially if hearing issues exist. Writing and mailing a letter may take longer, but after all, what’s the rush? In addition, a letter doesn’t demand an immediate response; parents generally don’t want their children to see them in distress, so the “distance” of a letter gives them time to cry, get over it, and put on a positive face.

Do add enough detail to the letter that your parents understand fully what you’re facing; having this physical document to refer to will help them organize their thoughts going forward.

Finally, understand and accept your parents’ response

If your parents don’t respond to your cancer news with great emotion, it’s not because they don’t feel anything; it’s just that their response mechanisms are probably different than yours.

First, they need time to process what they’ve just learned. Everything slows as you grow older, including your ability to absorb information quickly.

Next, they’re probably terrified you’re going to die. When they were growing up, cancer — any kind of cancer — was invariably fatal. They don’t know the great strides made in cancer treatment over the past 50 years. They’re in shock at your diagnosis.

Finally, if you’re a boomer, you spent at least some of your formative years in the 1960s, when “let it all hang out” became the mantra for interpersonal relationships. Your parents, on the other hand, were probably raised to hide their feelings. Their formative years were spent during World War II, when people were expected to keep a stiff upper lip and forge ahead, no matter what the bad news. So a “non-response” may simply be your parents hiding their feelings — at least for the moment.

Going forward

At the end of the day, you’re the one with cancer; your parents can’t do the treatment for you, nor experience what you’re feeling. But if you’re a mom yourself, you know what your parents are feeling: sadness, rage, guilt at not being able to take care of you.

Your parents may be old, but they love you like a child — and see you as a child, which may sometimes make you crazy! As you go through this journey together, cut your parents the occasional slack; they’re doing the best they can for you, as they always have.

See More Helpful Articles:

Just Diagnosed? We Can Help

A Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment

A Guide to Survivorship: Life After Treatment

Breast Cancer: Relieving Stress, One Step at a Time

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning authorPJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.