Things I Wish I’d Known Before #2: How to Break Bad News

I found that telling my friends and family, especially my mother, that I had cancer was way harder than receiving the news myself. I was so concerned about upsetting them – or crying myself – that I often ended up putting a jokey spin on things or being utterly deadpan.

There is no easy way to do this…

How not to break bad news: “Guess what?”, “Ummm, you’ve won the lottery?”, “No! Guess again…”
Don’t beat around the bush: “You know I had an appointment at the hospital?”, “Yeeees”, “Well I went there it was such a hassle to park and then I couldn’t find the place and then I waited for ages and when I finally went in to see the doctor he sent me upstairs and I had to wear one of those hideous gown, you would have laughed, then I had a mammogram, it’s not nearly as painful as I thought it would be, then I went for an ultrasound scan and anyway it turns out I’ve got breast cancer. Tah-dah!”

Give it to them straight: “I’m afraid I have bad news to tell you. (Resist the temptation to pause dramatically here, just get on with it) I’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.”

That’s it. Now just stop and listen, even if there is nothing to listen to.

Don’t bombard them with information, just to fill in the silence.

Do answer their questions as well as you can.

If they choke or burst into tears, show empathy with their feelings: “I know, it’s a shock.”

Don’t try to shut them down: “I don’t know what you’re crying about, I’m the one with cancer!”

Don’t feel that you have to support them: “Oh don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”

Do communicate your own feelings: “I’m very frightened. There’s a long road ahead but I’m hopeful that the outcome will be good.”

If they ask what they can do – tell them.


In Australia The Elegant Art of Falling Apart is available at Booktopia, Berkelouw, Dymocks and all good bookshops. In the UK it is available at