Health Hint! – Disclosing an Illness

Mar 31, 2021

Federated Health Charities’ mission is to improve the health and quality of life of all Ontarians by supporting 21 different health charities providing critical services to those experiencing, or affected by, illness.  We believe education and prevention are key parts of supporting the health of our communities so our weekly Health Hint series strives to provide tangible and easy to implement hints and tips on how to maintain your health, prevent disease, and enjoy increased quality of life.  Check out our latest Health Hint on disclosing an illness.  We hope you find it helpful.  If you would like to join our efforts to support the health of Ontario please consider a donation to Federated Health Charities. 

When you have received a diagnosis for a serious illness, it is common to want to share that with people.  Friends and family are a big part of your life and support system and it is normal to want to share this news with them so they have the full picture of what is going on with you.  By telling loved ones you can find emotional support and communicate your needs (NAMI, n.d.). 

There can be mixed feelings when it comes time to disclose an illness to family and friends.  You may be afraid of their reactions, that they will feel uncomfortable around you, or that the news will upset them (NAMI, n.d.).  Also, telling people can make it feel real for you, which can be frightening (Lindley, 2016). There is no right or wrong way to tell people and there is no set list of people you are required to tell (NAMI, n.d.).  It is entirely up to you to decide those things, so think about what would be best for you and stick to your boundaries.  By disclosing to the right people and sharing with them how they can help, you begin to build a support system.  You will discover that many people will want to help and be there for you (NAMI, n.d.).

Preparing for People’s Reactions

You can’t predict how loved ones will react to your news. Some will cry; some will become numb; and some will be eager to jump in and be the ‘go-to helper’ person (WebMD, n.d.).  People don’t always respond to a diagnosis the way you might expect them to and this is something to be preapred for (Alptraum, 2019).  If people react poorly, it likely has nothing to do with them not wanting to support you, but rather they may not be emotionally prepared for the news of your illness.  It is important to remember that you may have sat with this news for some time now, but to them it is brand new and they may not know what it means or how to process it right away (NAMI, n.d.).  Other times, a persons unwillingness to accept your diagnosis may come from a place of trying to protect the person they love.  By denying, ignoring or avoiding the topic of your diagnosis they might be trying to will it away so you don’t have to suffer (NAMI, n.d.).  These reactions can be difficult to deal with, but remembering that, often, peoples poor reactions are actually coming from a place of love. 

Disclosing: Who, When & How


There is no definitive list of people you must tell, it is entirely up to you.  Some people benefit from telling many close loved ones, others prefer to tell a small group of people.  If you are unsure of who to disclose to, it might be helpful to make a pros and cons list to help determine who it might be beneficial to share with and who it might be best not to (WebMD, n.d.).  Similarly, there is no correct order or manner to share your news.  Some people gather everyone together and tell them at once, some meet with people individually, some bring people to speak with their doctor and some tell one person (such as a spouse or sibling) and ask them to tell others (WebMD, n.d.).


You might feel unsure of the best time to bring people in to the loop of what is going on with you.  The first, and most important, factor is disclosing only when you are ready.  Sharing your diagnosis is very personal and private and you need to feel ready to let other people in to that experience.  You may need to take time to process the diagnosis first, you may need to practice how you are going to tell people, or you may need to gain support from your doctor or a therapist before you feel ready to open up (NAMI, n.d.). The second factor to consider is whether disclosing serves a purpose.  Maybe you will need to miss work for appointments or be unable to see friends or family as often due to feeling unwell.  In cases such as these, disclosing can provide relief for you and understanding for your loved ones (NAMI, n.d.).


Again, there are many ways to share your news, but here are some things that can help.  Prepare for the conversation, decide what you do and don’t want to share, and practice how you want to deliver the news. Provide information.  Just like when you found out, your loved ones will likely have questions and being prepared with resources and information can help inform them and lessen their confusion and fear.  Be prepared with ways they can help.  Your loved ones will want to be there for you and help how they can.  Give thought to what would be helpful to you (someone to take you to appointments, someone to watch your kids, etc.) and communicate this to them.  When people offer to help, they mean it, so don’t feel uncomfortable communicating what you will need in terms of both concrete help and emotional support (NAMI, n.d.).  

Talking to Children

Many people, understandably, want to protect children from frightening news and are reluctant to share their diagnosis with them.  But children, even at a very young age, can pick up when something is going on or different and are surpirisingly capable of understanding what is happening.  When explaining your diagnosis to a child it is important not to provide too much information so as not to overhwelm them, and ensure the information you do share is simple and age appropriate.  Once you’ve told them, it is normal for children to have questions.  They may ask them right away or come around to it at a later time.  Let them know it is okay to have questions and that they can ask them at any time.  Don’t be alarmed if a child appears to have no reaction when you tell them, this can be normal, and they may come back to the topic at later times when they have a thought or question.  It might be appropirate to tell other important people in the childs life (babysitter, teachers, etc.) in case they require some additional support coping with the news (WebMD, n.d.). 

Disclosing at Work

You are not required to disclose to your employer and it may be best to weigh the pros and cons of doing so.  Your employer is required, by law, to accommodate you but this doesn’t mean it isnt still frightening to share a personal diagnosis with them.  Consider whether they need to know (for example if you will need time off for treatments) and whether you feel comfortable with them knowing or any potential negative impacts that might come from disclosing.  Before you share information you might want to become informed of your legal right so you are prepared to advocate for yourself (NAMI, n.d.).

We hope you’ve enjoyed our latest Health Hint!
Written by: Sarah Wood

NOTE: This article is intended to provide general health tips based on available research. You should consult with a health care professional for specific medical and dietary instructions that are right for you.


Alptraum, L. (2019, Nov.18). Hi, Family. Let Me Tell You about My Mental Illness. Elemental.

Lindley, J.K. (2016, Sept. 29). How to Tell Friends and Family Members About a Difficult Diagnosis. Real Simple.

NAMI. (n.d.). Disclosing to Others.

WebMD. (n.d.). Life-Threatening Illness: What to Tell Family, Friends.

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