General Question

majorrich's avatar

How do I break the news to my family of very bad medical news?

Asked by majorrich (11838 points ) October 1st, 2009

Received a call from the doctor this morning that the cancer we put into remission 4 years ago is alive and well and has spread very aggressively. When I asked about my mortality, all he could say was ‘We’ll buy you as much time as we can’. I have not told my family the extent of my illness. I have come to a point that I have to tell my wife and son more about the fight I (we) are about undertake. How do I tell them?

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54 Answers

ccrow's avatar

Oh my, there probably is no easy way. I am so sorry that it has come back. I think I would just come out with it, at home, w/o company.

beachwriter's avatar

I have no idea, but my heart goes out to you. You sound like a very caring person. Bless you!

Jeruba's avatar

My husband said to me, “I just got a call from the doc. It’s not good news, babe.”

It isn’t a moment I’ll forget.

Clear, open, and direct is the best, as far as I’m concerned. Given that the news is the realization of your worst fear, there’s no good way, but trusting your partner to handle as much as you can handle, taking up the slack for you wherever possible, is important right now.

Your son’s age is a big factor. If he’s not old enough to handle adult reality, I don’t know. Our friend cak will know, though.

I am so sorry that you have to face this terrible trial. I wish you strength and courage and a way to find peace and joy in the midst of it.

Judi's avatar

I think you just have to say it. Probably tell your wife first, and let her help with your son. I’ll be praying for you.

Dog's avatar

I cannot add to the wisdom shared here already but want to say that I am sorry you have such sad news to share.

SpatzieLover's avatar

I’m a band-aid ripper, so if it were me, I’d just say it, after I asked them to sit down.

@majorrich Have you seen the movie My Life?

The main character played by Michael Keaton video tapes his wisdom for his kids, and writes out birthday cards and buys presents for future occasions. It’s what I would do if I knew myself or a loved one knew time was limited.

Sending strength along with healing & positive thoughts to you and your loved ones.

wickedbetty's avatar

As a child of someone who has had cancer, and had it return to be terminal, I would say the best thing is to talk about it as soon as possible. You can even act like you just found out. My parents told me right away and I would have been upset had they kept it from me. Life is short and you don’t want to keep it a secret because it is time to make memories, you don’t want the people who will be upset to feel like they have been gypped of their grieving time. I hope that makes sense…time is ticking and they deserve to know.

We just found out last week that my dad’s kidney cancer has returned and it taking up residence in his brain. We have about 4 weeks left with him. Time is so precious. If my parents had not told me, I would not be at home right now taking the time to really express how much I love my dad and support my siblings and amazing mother.

You did not mention if this is terminal and you did not mention your prognosis. I have friends that have lived with cancer for 10+ years. It is up to you when to tell, after all, it is your life. I would just say, coming from a child’s point of view, tell them sooner, rather than later. It doesn’t have to be a huge “coming out” but just a simple private conversation, with lots of tears, and expressions of support from you to your family who will eventually be left behind, and from your family who will lovingly take care of you.

Good luck to you sir. You will be in my prayers.

majorrich's avatar

I tried to tell my wife, got halfway through and couldn’t go on. There are still more tests, more discussions, more options. and the final prognosis. So far all the doc says is it don’t look good. We will continue to post as facts come in. I am home alone much of the day and you guys are my outlet. Especially in the evening, when I begin to brood which is a bad thing I know, but it happens.

Sincere thanks for all your prayers, thoughts and general mojo sent my way. We beat it once, whats one more time. <3

SpatzieLover's avatar

@majorrich {{{{{{{{{{{{{HUGS}}}}}}}}}}}}} and lurve to you.

I wish I could hug you through my screen

blueknight73's avatar

god bless you, i will say a prayer for you and your loved ones

missingbite's avatar

My prayers are with you. After you tell them, remind them that you are going to fight. No doctor can tell you how long you have to live. Only God can do that. Good luck!

aprilsimnel's avatar

Please don’t carry the burden alone; your doctor is also there to help. If needed, he can help you tell your wife what’s happening. I’m so sorry. I wish you peace.

janbb's avatar

@majorrich I’m so sorry to hear that and wish you strength in the battle ahead.

Ailia's avatar

@majorrich I’m sorry to hear that. But have you ever read “Cancer is not a disease it’s a survival mechanism” by Andreas Moritz? My family and friends have said it is an excellent read and it may help you beat the disease. You may or may not want to read it, but if it helps you with your cancer than why not give it a chance?

whatthefluther's avatar

It’s never easy to share such news, but it will be a relief once done. Not knowing your son’s age, discuss with your wife first and between you decide when and how much to share with your son, but he should be brought up to date before too long. You are probably facing an unforgiving medical roller-coaster…cling tight, but make the most out of every available moment you have. I encourage you to get your living will and other matters in order soon so that those affairs do not weigh on you and steal precious time. Keep up the good fight. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Sending lots of lurve….Gary/wtf

Les's avatar

I have nothing to add other than my deepest, most sincere prayers and thoughts for you and your family. You will be in my thoughts.

cookieman's avatar

Don’t be alone in this. Tell your wife now. As impossible as it feels to say the words, it will be worse if you wait. You need her and she needs you to be honest.

I hope you beat this, but, as you say, it doesn’t sound good. You need your wife by your side so you can make your plans and leave behind what you want to leave behind.

Don’t hide from this. Depending on your child’s age, he could learn a lot by how you handle this. Face it head on and if you go down – go down swinging and that motherfucker will never truly win.

wundayatta's avatar

I, too, am sorry to hear about this. It is the kind of bad fantasy that I think about far more than is healthy for me. I’m only 53, but far too many of my friends have already succumbed to various kinds of cancers.

I’m also sorry that you feel like you have a hard time telling your family about this. I suppose you believe you are protecting them, but could this be about you also trying to protect yourself? This kind of news is the nightmare of anyone who has ever heard about this kind of illness. It is perfectly understandable that it is hard for you to take in.

As far as I can tell, what people find most helpful when their days are numberable, is to be surrounded by supportive friends. Some people find friends amongst the people they know in real life, and others online, and others in both places. My friend with pancreatic cancer had a whole community of support. They arranged for people to sign up to visit her, so that she had people to be with every day. They set up a Care Pages account to post news on, so she didn’t have to tell the same story five million times.

She told me that one of the hardest things was that, often, she felt like she had to comfort the people who visited her. They had a harder time with her diagnosis than she did.

People do have a hard time. We don’t know what to talk about. We are thinking about death, but don’t feel like we should talk about it. We know we will miss you, but we haven’t had the need to think about it the way you have. Being with you is confusing because of these things. We all want to do the right thing. We want to be helpful to you, and yet, it seems like no matter what we do, it won’t be perfect.

As @Jeruba mentioned, this community has had an experience with someone who has been fighting cancer for at least two years. She has informed people what’s going on, and garnered a lot of support. She, like you, has just been honest about it. Not the “poor me” kind of outlook, but the “just help me deal with it” outlook. People like to support each other here, and do the best they can to do that. Maybe too much, at times, when everyone wants to send cards or whatever. It can get overwhelming, unless someone else takes charge of organizing it, and is a kind of buffer between you and the community, only letting through that which does not overwhelm you.

I don’t really know. Everyone is different in how they respond to these things. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. You have to tell me, if you even know. People want to do the right thing by you, whatever that is. I’m sure family will want to enjoy as much time with you as they can. People always want to be able to say goodbye. It helps them come to peace after they lose you. Often, though, they walk on eggshells, afraid to talk about things. Maybe you like that and maybe you don’t. Perhaps you’ll want me to shut up, but I’m a believer in using this place to talk about real shit. I think it helps. I think it is really useful to find others who have been in similar situations or are in similar situations.

Like I said, I’m sorry you have to deal with this. I wish you the best possible for the rest of your life. Life is worth hanging onto as tightly as you can, I think. It is also worth learning how to be at peace with what is happening, even as you fight it. I imagine it’s a delicate kind of balance, and not one I feel capable of at the moment. However, I wish you the best connections with those you love and those who love you for as long as it is possible. It is too hard without that. The good news, though, is that there is a lot of love out there to give you. Some of it even comes from places like fluther.

Darwin's avatar

There is really nothing for me to add, either, but as the wife of a man who has been given at one point a less than 10% chance of survival, I hated to hear it but I was very glad to know so that I could make sure everything would go smoothly during his illness and beyond, if I had to go there. Your wife deserves to know, if only to be able to make the most of the time she has with you, and then the two of you need to let your son know in a way that is appropriate for his age.

ItalianPrincess1217's avatar

My heart goes out to you and your family. I know it’ll be difficult but the sooner you share the news with your family, the better. If I were your wife I would absolutely want to know right away. I’d be upset if my husband held back news like that for too long. Because the moment I found out I’d go into “every minute with you is precious” mode. Good luck with everything and you’ll be in my prayers.

windex's avatar

I highly highly highly recommend seeing an herb medicine doctor.
This has nothing to do with being superstitious or believing in witchcraft/voodo/nonsense.
The 1st hand stories I’ve heard about these people are simply amazing. I don’t know why it’s not recognized by the “official medical…” whatever it is…

I’m not sure what they’re called, but it can rage from an old Acupuncture dude, to someone who can tell you what is wrong with you by simply looking at your tongue.

I made an appointment a while back for next week. I know I might sound like a crazy person right now, but I want to see what these guys do and how the f*** it works.

Although NOT board certified and not recognized by whatever organization this whole “health” thing is run, I’ve heard that these guys work miracles.

I’ll let you know about my visit.

Good luck

YARNLADY's avatar

When it happened in my family, my husband walked in looking very pale and when I asked what happened, he told me the sorry news. We told our son by saying Dad got some very sad news today.

rooeytoo's avatar

It is a terrible hand to be dealt. But if you were my husband, I would want to know right away, to hold your hand and to prepare myself as well. I send positive energy your way.

augustlan's avatar

Positive energy and lurve to you, friend.

Jeruba's avatar

In case I left a wrong impression, I must add that my story is not so recent. His surgery is past and appears to have been successful. But the worry is never really gone.

Buttonstc's avatar

I don’t know how old your son is but I will just pass on what a man named Randy Pausch who dealt with pancreatic cancer did after consultation with a child therapist. His children were quite young so the advice was given to not overwhelm them too early on in the process.

As long as he was still at a fairly normal activity level, there was nothing to be gained by telling them Daddy is sick. That would just confuse them needlessly since he didn’t look sick.

Much later as his body began to show the effects of illness with him perhaps needing to rest more frequently or be in bed more, less appetite, weight loss, etc. Would be plenty enough time to tell them and go into more detail as they continued to ask questions. Also to be honest with them in age-appropriate ways. All of his children were early grade school or below in age. Obviously if your son is in his teens or older that’s a totally different scenario.

I pray that you and your wife can draw strength from each other as you face this challenge. The sooner you tell her the better no matter how difficult.

There are support groups for folks facing cancer and I’m sure that your doctors or hospital where you go for tests can direct you to one. This could be an invaluable resource for you both.

During the alone times at night of which you spoke you may find it helpful to head over to YouTube and Google and listen to as much of “The Last Lecture” by the aforementioned Randy Pausch. He was a pretty unique guy with an infectious love of life who went through what you are facing now. I believe he also wrote. I would highly recommend ongoing doses of his words on a regular basis.

A lot of Flutherites (myself included) seem to be regular night owls so you never have to spend nights alone brooding. I’m sure there will be at least one or more of us no matter how late fluthering away “all bright eyed and bushy-tailed” no matter how late the hour whose PM boxes are open to you.

You will be in my thoughts and prayers and I’m sure many others here as well.

Saturated_Brain's avatar

I can’t add anything to the excellent advice given above, but you should just sit your wife down and tell her calmly about it.

I feel terrible thinking about being in your situation. I can only imagine how it must feel for you but if I were in your shoes this is what I’d do…

When my wife is free, say after dinner or something like that, I’ll ask her to sit down on the couch with me (or on the bedside if it’s more private). I’ll hold her hand and tell her that there’s some bad news for her. Then I’ll say that it’s about my cancer. Throughout the whole conversation, I’ll make sure that firstly, my son is nowhere near us and secondly, that I’m always somehow in physical contact with her, be it through holding her hand or through hugging her.

From there I’ll make sure that we both plan for the future and how to break the news to our son. Maybe when we go out as a family or something like that to a park or to the beach. Make sure that it’s a quiet family moment where there’ll be no distractions.

I’m so sorry that this had to happen to you. If need be, just continue asking us questions. We’ll do our best to help, and that’s a promise.

majorrich's avatar

Good morning everybody. I tried again very early this morning to talk with Kristi about our situation. She listened and we wept, and then she hit me with a smallish bomb. Apparently Jackie, Dr Seipels nurse called her on her cell phone knowing my tendency to internalize bad news. She said she had been waiting for me to come out with it, and for the first time in 22 years of our lives together I slept in her arms. (usually the other way around)
I am overwhelmed by the support I have been receiving from complete strangers! How easy it was to tell my situation to others but not to my own family. All I can do is send to each of you my heartfelt thanks. I have the advantage of relative health, and living near several world-class cancer hospitals. The James Cancer clinic at Ohio State is where I am scheduled for a second opinion. That will happen shortly after they finish the tests here at home. I have no pain, and don’t feel too bad, just tired.

janbb's avatar

Keep us posted as you want or are able to.

Dog's avatar

I am so glad the telling is done. Now you can gear up for the fight.
We are here for you- post anytime you need to. I for one am praying that you are one of the exceptional people that beat the diagnosis.

whatthefluther's avatar

Sounds like you have good support at home and from your doctor and you can count on it here as well. Keep up a good fight and best of luck to you. See you around….Gary/wtf

virtualist's avatar

@majorrich Hopefully you will discover an excellent multidisciplinary clinic at the James… that is key !

hug_of_war's avatar

the james is great for that stuff, i wish you the best of luck

Saturated_Brain's avatar

Congrats @majorrich. Glad to hear that things are getting better. Next step, your son. How’re you planning to break the news to him?

majorrich's avatar

I have been strategising on that from the start. Kristi says she wants to handle that part. He is so active in the Boy Scouts, should have his Eagle rank finished by the end of the month. We have filled out most of the paperwork already. For me, that is my first attainable goal. Next goal is to see him graduate High School. I’m not going down without a fight.

janbb's avatar

So he must be a teenager?

As I’ve said on other posts, I don’t pray but my thoughts are with you.

dalepetrie's avatar

@majorrich – I had to sleep on this one, and by the time I got on today, you had already made the answer I was going to give mostly irrelevant. But this doesn’t mean that I can’t still give some of the advice, as I think it might help you.

You see, I was going to start by saying that I haven’t had too many intereactions with you, perhaps partly because you’re newer and partly because we probably have slightly different interests, in fact, the only other time it comes to mind that you and I were on the same board was when we took rather opposite positions on a somewhat political matter. And what I gathered from that discussion other than that you seemed to be an intelligent and articulate individual were that

1) you had a strong will
2) you were deep in your convictions, and
3) you are or were in the military.

I take it that your name indicates then not just some nickname, but rather a military rank which you have attained. And though I’ve never been in the military, I know enough from having a father who is retired military (and I suppose from watching my share of M*A*S*H), that Major is an officer rank, it is a rank that denotes some amount of leadership, both in experience and training. My advice for how to get through telling had to do partly with drawing upon that training and experience, as surely you’ve been in a position before in your where you’ve had to deliver unpleasant news to people you cared about.

But that is all said and done, you’ve taken the right first step. As for your son, now you have another person on your side to discuss how to handle breaking the news to him, if you have not already, but again, you can draw on your leadership experience. And your son being nearly an Eagle Scout, this can be a crucial leadership test for him. You may not be the one to tell him, but you may be able to help him..you’ve been there/done that to a much greater level than he has, you have a basis to empathize, and you should be able to set a great example for him to look to in times of crisis.

But having said all that, being a military leader has its drawbacks in your situation. You are I’m certain used to being a person who has people look to him, you are probably not so much a person who is likely to give in and let others take care of you…if that were your character, you would not be the type of person you are. So, I believe the greatest challenge for you is going to be letting go of the need to be the strong one, to be the leader, to be the one your family looks to. You’re going to have to tell yourself that now is the time YOU have to look to THEM. And you need to focus all your energies on beating this thing.

I don’t have any first hand experience in this area, so take my advice for what it’s worth, but I think if you let go of your need to be in control of the situation (and it sounds like you’re doing a marvelous job of that), I think that’s about the only thing you really can do at this point.

Good luck and I wish you the best.

augustlan's avatar

I’m glad the telling has been accomplished. Sounds like you have a wonderful wife by your side, and supportive and caring medical staff too! Best of luck in your fight, and remember: we are here for you.

majorrich's avatar

@dalepetrie You are oh so correct in letting go of the reigns. I served 18 years in the Army. And was always one of the ‘lead from the front kind’ kind of officer. I would be retired from the Army by now were it not for this silly nonsense. I’ve been injured, I’ve caused other men to assume room temperature. My worst duty was later in my career. I had been ill and had to be assigned to a desk job. I had the duty of signing orders of men and women to go into harms way, and to write letters to next of kin. Some of these men were friends of mine. I’m afraid that caused me to build a ‘shell’ where my soft side lives. Dylan Thomas’ poem comes to mind, and reflects my feelings now.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Saturated_Brain's avatar

@majorrich We’re rooting for you man. Perhaps now’s the time to viva la vida!

bea2345's avatar

Hang in there, @majorrich , and it is good that you have family support.

majorrich's avatar

It’s been a while since I have updated this thread. Another round of chemo, a surgery and a lot of prayer I am doing pretty good. We aren’t out of the woods yet, but I think I see light. The doc says I am too stubborn to give up, I say I am too ugly to die. One of us has got to be right.

rooeytoo's avatar

That’s good news!

SpatzieLover's avatar

@majorrich Thank you for the update!

augustlan's avatar

I’m so glad to hear you’re doing well! Thanks for keeping us posted.

Buttonstc's avatar

It seems like stubborness is a very good trait for you to have in this battle.

The medical profession has realized that the patients with the most favorable outcomes are those stubborn ones who just won’t surrender. They call it a strong will to live.

Just keep that up. Glad to hear things are looking up for you.

Dog's avatar

Yay!

aprilsimnel's avatar

@majorrich, Keep on keeping on, sir!

Jeruba's avatar

It’s been two years since you posted on this thread, @majorrich. Is it update time?

majorrich's avatar

I’ve been officially back in remission for nearly two years. I feel pretty good thanks to modern chemistry and clean living :) I have pulled back a bit from the things that I ‘used to could’ and have started down some new roads of things I can still do.
We have started a durable medical loan closet at the Church which I volunteer at. We loan walkers, wheelchairs, commodes, shower chairs and just about any other home hardware to people while they wait for Medicare (or Medi-dont-care) to approve and get needed things to people. It is a flourishing little beacon of light that I get a big charge out of. I have a lot of empathy for people who are a lot more messed up than I was. Even though the disease took a lot from me. I feel I have grown in other ways to compensate. I speak fluent medicalese for example.
My wife and I celebrated 25 years together this year and my Son is attending a fine local College, where he is thriving. I guess I built up enough equity in life that I am catching a break or two. Cash is tight, but I have a richer life now that I’ve been through the fire. My future looks far better now than it did when I first took ill, and the return of the thing. It appears I really am too ugly to die.

bea2345's avatar

What wonderful news. May God be with you always.

augustlan's avatar

So good to hear! Thanks for the update. :)

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