How to talk about health problems

Helen Norris and her daughter

Discussing health issues, whether yours or a loved one’s, isn’t always easy. Rachael Healy gets advice from an expert and a heart patient who’s been through it.

Starting a conversation about your heart condition or surgery can be difficult. Sharing the news can make it seem too real, or you may struggle to find the right words. Some people are reluctant to ask for help, while others worry their condition could be seen as a weakness. 

It’s also tough on loved ones. Some will worry about upsetting you, while others may not understand how serious your condition is. 

Helen Norris, 40, was diagnosed with long QT syndrome after collapsing on a family day out. Long QT is a rare inherited condition affecting electrical impulses in the heart. It can cause blackouts when the heart’s normal rhythm is interrupted. “The condition I have took a lot of explaining,” says Helen. “It was difficult for people to understand. But as soon as I explained to my nearest and dearest what it actually involves, they were much more comfortable with it and happy that they understood.” 

Sharing the news

Revealing news of a diagnosis or operation can be daunting. “Telling other people brings it out into the open, so naturally there’s a reluctance to do so,” explains Dr Judith Carrier, Senior Lecturer and Director of Postgraduate Studies at the School of Healthcare Sciences, Cardiff University. “It’s about sharing with your immediate family or loved ones, but making it clear whether you want it shared more widely or not.” 

Start by asking: ‘What do you know about coronary heart disease?’ It’s a good idea to find out what their perceptions are before you get started

Dr Carrier, who has a special interest in long-term conditions and is a registered nurse herself, suggests trying a technique healthcare professionals use when breaking news to patients. “Start by asking: ‘What do you know about coronary heart disease?’ It’s a good idea to find out what their perceptions are before you get started,” she says. “Direct people to charity websites, like the BHF or Diabetes UK, as well as NHS Choices, because they have really good resources for families and they’re a good way to start going into further detail.” 

There are many ways to share your news, if you decide this is the right thing to do. Helen found it was easier to tell people in person. “An email or a letter isn’t a free-flowing conversation, whereas doing it face to face, or even over the phone, you can discuss things,” she says. “Have an open and honest dialogue. Any information is better than none – I think that’s the key thing. If you don’t talk about it, people will jump to worse conclusions.”

If you plan on telling lots of people, it can be useful to come up with a simple way to describe what has happened to you. If you’re worried about finding the right words, you could compose a message to send via post, email or social media. Helen says there’s no reason to avoid discussing heart conditions with children. “I had to have the conversation with my daughter, who has the condition as well,” she says. “Speaking to her as a four-year-old, it was about not going into detail, but just saying: ‘Sometimes mummy’s heart does this, then this happens.’ She kind of understands it. It’s about picking your words for your audience, but don’t be afraid to talk to children about it.” 

Asking for help 

Whether you’re adjusting to a diagnosisrecovering from surgery or simply having a bad day, everyone needs support sometimes. But it can be difficult to ask for it. Dr Carrier suggests a direct approach. “The best thing to do is be upfront and say: ‘Look, this is really difficult for me, but this is what has happened and I’d like your support,’” she says. 

Helen Norris and her daughter

Being clear about how friends, family and colleagues can help will empower them to assist you. At the same time, setting boundaries about where their involvement should end could prevent you feeling patronised or wrapped up in cotton wool. 

It’s important that you can share how you feel about your heart condition. However, it doesn’t have to dominate every conversation or inform your answer every time someone asks: ‘How are you?’ Set aside time to speak about your heart condition and share what’s on your mind, then get on with the rest of your day. 

“I kept it a little bit to myself to start with, but then I realised that probably wasn’t the best thing to do,” says Helen. “At that point, I realised I needed to speak to somebody. Not necessarily a counsellor, but a friend outside my immediate, very close group.”

  • For free support Caring Bridge is a website to help you share news of a diagnosis or operation. It’s a free, not for profit service, and users can post updates if and when they want to. There is a ‘guestbook’ option where loved ones can leave messages of support. This can make it easier for friends and family to express their feelings.
  • Read more about active listening
  • Find tips on conversations about end of life 

More useful information