Talking to Family about Cancer Risk

Talking to Family about Cancer Risk

It can be difficult to know how to start talking to your family about cancer risk. Every family has its own dynamics and different relationships can affect the way you talk to your relatives. Try looking at some of the tips below.

Figuring out the best mode of communication

  • You might be most comfortable communicating in a specific way: in-person, through the phone, email, social media, or through written letters. Consider what type of communication your relative might be comfortable receiving. Not everybody is comfortable sharing things via email or social media. On the other hand, some people are not comfortable with telephone calls, especially out of the blue. It can be helpful to do a "test run" by reaching out to relatives you are most comfortable with contacting before talking to others.
  • For relatives you have not seen in a while you might start by letting them know that you'd like to discuss a family-related project. For distant relatives you might start by letting them know how you are related to them.  If you don't reach them on the first text or phone call, provide your contact information so that relatives can easily respond.  When relatives ask for more information, you can give them more details about yourself and the project.
  • If you are using a written form of communication, keep in mind that some people prefer to get individual messages instead of getting a mass group message. A little bit of personalization, such as starting an email or letter with the relative's name, can help relatives feel more comfortable with communicating with you.

Respecting each relative's decision and feelings

When people hear the word "cancer," they can become anxious. Some relatives might not want to talk about cancer if they have had it before, or if they've seen someone close to them suffer through it. Some relatives might have a negative reaction at first, but then change their mind later after they have had some time to process the conversation. It is important to recognize each relative's emotional reaction and respond appropriately. Remember, it is hard for people to listen to you or respond when they are angry or upset. Don't give up at your first try. Sometimes it just takes time.

Dealing with difficult relationships

Sometimes there are family relationships where relatives have chosen not to stay in touch with each other or certain relatives are estranged from the rest of the family. You can decide whether you want to contact an estranged relative and in what way. Be sensitive to the history behind the relative's relationship with your other family members and the circumstances in which they lost contact, and weigh the benefits of contacting the relative with the risk of disrupting family relationships. You may also want to talk to your other relatives to let them know why, when, and how you are contacting the estranged relative so that they can anticipate how it might affect their lives.