Why choose to keep cancer a secret?
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- My husband kept his cancer a secret from me
- Why do some cancer patients choose to keep their cancer a secret?
- The protection of others
- Should I tell anyone I have cancer?
- When to share a cancer diagnosis
- Choosing to keep your cancer secret?
- With hindsight
My husband kept his cancer a secret from me
I knew something was going on, I could just tell.
‘Something is wrong and you are not telling me’, I remember pleading with him.
Yet still he wouldn’t tell me and kept his cancer a secret.
I had two weeks left until I was due to give birth. It had been a stressful high-risk pregnancy and I was counting the days until we could move on with our lives.
After about six weeks of coughing, I had forced him to reluctantly go to the doctor. I think he knew that it must be something serious but he had put off going to get checked.
He knew I was suspicious, but even then, he chose to keep quiet about his cancer diagnosis.
Within days I had given birth and devastatingly lost one of the twins. …But that’s another story.
One day six of our little girl’s life my husband came back from an appointment which I was soon to realize that it was actually a consultant’s appointment in a larger hospital nearby.
At that moment of realization my alarm bells were ringing.
I could see the strain in his face and I knew he was too scared to say the words out aloud.
‘Did the consultant sound negative?’ I nervously asked.
‘Did they mention cancer?’
Silence. He turned away from me and took a deep breath. I don’t think he even said the words.
He pointed to his chest and eventually said, ‘Up there’.
‘They also saw some down here,’ he choked out, as he pointed to his abdomen.
He drip-fed me the information. It was a slow coming to terms for him and me.
He never mentioned the Stage 4 diagnosis or the devastating prognosis statistics. I don’t think he had ever asked; he just knew that it wasn’t good.
It hurt that he had kept his cancer a secret.
I had wanted to have been there for him at the initial appointment with the doctor for the preliminary diagnosis and then his first appointment with the consultant oncologist.
I felt ashamed, angry and sad that he had gone through a cancer diagnosis alone.
He had obviously been hiding hospital appointment letters and making hushed phone calls, even hiding early symptoms from me when I think about it now.
But I do know why he had kept his cancer a secret from me, keeping me in the dark for so long.
He had dealt with this crisis on his own terms, out of his love for me and our children.
That was my husband; empathetic, protective, stoic.
He was the kingpin and emotional caretaker of the family, he kept everyone together and knew that I would be floored.
I now feel proud of his loyalty and genuine love, but I am still left a bit annoyed by his choice to leave me out and go through that alone.
Why do some cancer patients choose to keep their cancer a secret?
Like my husband, not every cancer patient chooses not to share their journey with others.
A cancer diagnosis is so deeply personal and emotionally impactful that initially there can be a completely surreal moment of shocked inner silence.
Your initial gut reaction may surprise you.
Some cancer patients will choose to be completely transparent, sharing their news and latest updates on social media, a blog or on cancer forums.
Or perhaps you are swept along by the initial flurry of panic, that every detail must come out.
Either way, by being so open, many cancer patients find support, strength and solidarity throughout their journey.
Other people are intensely private by nature, especially when it comes to their own health.
Sharing your cancer diagnosis, all your ups and downs along the way, bearing your soul to others simply isn’t an option.
They have a ‘my body, my business’ policy and would find it challenging to fully disclose such a personal journey.
An alternative way to handle this situation is to not tell everyone everything.
There are many cancer patients who deliberately don’t tell everyone about specific parts of their cancer experience to avoid any negative judgement or pity.
For example, they may choose to remain semi-private and simply be vague about the type of cancer they have, its stage or prognosis.
Or they may not disclose the fact that they have had a mastectomy, are left potentially infertile or have suffered mental health problems as a direct result of the experience.
So why do some cancer patients choose to remain private and keep their entire cancer a secret or at least not share their whole experience?
Is it out of confidentiality? Do they feel that there is still some stigma, shame and embarrassment to be felt by having cancer, its treatment or side effects?
How an individual chooses to react under the extreme stress of a cancer diagnosis usually will be driven by two factors; self-protection and the protection of others.
When cancer exposes you to the raw emotions of anger, fear and confusion, it is not surprising that the initial reaction when in survival mode is to self- protect.
Living in a headspace of part-denial, part-wishing you could stop time, you may initially choose to keep your cancer secret and keep life as normal as possible.
You may just need some time to be able to process and come to terms with the news.
The whole post-diagnosis experience is emotionally draining.
When you are at your most vulnerable, you may not have the resilience to answer everyone’s questions or take other people’s opinions.
You haven’t got the energy to stay strong when met with concerned looks and sympathetic glances.
You’re not be ready for the influx of visitors, flowers, cards, home bakes and freezer food.
Perhaps you just want to wait until you had some positive news to share opposed to the doubtful, potentially uncertain future.
By limiting what you share you can control the narrative and keep things positive by preventing others from jumping to conclusions.
This way you can avoid the scare-stories and comparisons and focus on your own situation.
Wait until you know more.
Control the controllable.
In small communities, whether in a small town or your workspace or friendship groups word can spread fast.
Most people don’t want to be defined by cancer or treated any differently so the idea of keeping cancer a secret can appeal.
They choose to self-protect by limiting their inner circle and not disclosing their cancer to their work colleagues.
Some cancer patients are able to work through or around their treatment cycles.
So, they make a professional and financial decision to protect themselves from any discrimination or repercussions at work by keeping their cancer secret.
The protection of others
The other driving force behind the choice to keep your cancer a secret perhaps is to protect others from their worry out of your love for them.
You might want to protect your aging parents, young children or like in our case your pregnant wife or partner from the news.
You choose to hide your cancer as a massive secret because of your concerns over how they will react to your difficult diagnosis or prognosis.
You don’t want to burden others with the stress of the big emotions attached of fear or sadness, so you play it down to those you surround you.
This is your altruistic way of managing the trauma by controlling the situation and protecting their mental health.
Should I tell anyone I have cancer?
You may have mixed feelings about becoming transparent with the truth about your cancer.
Being open with your emotions is uncomfortable and it can be awkward to tell others details of your personal life.
But if you do choose to let others know and stop being so secretive, you may find that there are many positives.
People with cancer will always need a support network to surround them. There will be emotional, social, practical or financial needs that you just can’t meet on your own.
That’s not to say that every person facing cancer will need a caregiver as such, but we all need someone to share with.
The outpouring of love and support you receive can be a source of incredible strength.
Many reflect with gratitude, that their support systems are an amazing source of comfort.
Your physical wellbeing can even be boosted by being emotionally strengthened through the support of your loving nearest and dearest.
You can be more open when you are having a bad day or simply want to take some time out for yourself.
Talking is healthy and can be so therapeutic.
Not only for you, but also for those around you who will also be affected by your cancer.
Sometimes keeping secrets from those close to you can cause more harm than good.
By shutting your family or close friends out, it creates stress and anxiety and can cause people to jump to their own conclusions when they sense something is wrong.
Through talking opening about your worries, everyone involved may feel an immense sense of relief from the anxiety, depression, stress that have built-up.
If knowing how to approach deep conversations is the problem, there is help in how to answer difficult questions about treatment choices or end of life decisions.
Turn to your counsellor or palliative care nurse for support.
When to share a cancer diagnosis
Be prepared that keeping your cancer a secret may not always be possible for long.
You may just want to take a breather and heal for a while, away from any attention, feeling like the point of diagnosis is the right time for you to share.
Any cancer story can end up becoming so drawn out over time, with so many ups and downs, highs and lows that you may be reluctantly waiting for the right moment to be honest and tell everyone.
But there may come a point that you have to tell someone, the secret may become too big.
Keeping a big secret such as having cancer can be a messy business. Unless you keep a tight grip on who you tell, you can trip yourself up and get tangled in your cover story.
There will also be many appointments to attend, major surgery to potentially go through and your body image will be affected by the anti-cancer drugs.
It is difficult to hide changes to your appearance such as; hair loss, weight changes, outward signs of stress.
There will be days during treatment that you need to sleep more, you may feel weak, anaemic, nauseated or will need to go into isolation due to infection control.
The truth is that there’s no right time for anyone to hear about the cancer of a loved one and it will never be something easy to share.
Choosing to keep your cancer secret?
Although it is probably wise to be open and honest, there are always exceptions to the rule and you are the one who can appreciate your own set of circumstances.
For now, telling the whole truth may be too difficult a step. You may feel like you are faced with no other choice but to hide your cancer from being general knowledge.
You may want to avoid the intrusion of endless visitors, limit the negative reactions that could devastate you, or keep some control over the events unfolding in your own life.
If you choose to limit your inner circle and not to tell all your friends and family keeping your cancer diagnosis to yourself, or only divulge the information to a select few, then who else can you turn to for support?
Your first point of contact when looking for support should be your oncologist and the medical team that surrounds them.
The specialist oncology nurse can help guide you through any difficult decisions.
There are also the cancer charity phonelines to help you answer all the questions you wish you had asked when you find yourself back home.
Opting to face cancer alone or choosing to hide aspects of your journey is clearly a personal choice.
Some people prefer to go through the treatment alone, others feel more comfortable sharing their news when the treatment phase is over and you can be more realistic or positive.
With hindsight, you don’t want to have any regrets either way.
So, do what makes you feel comfortable, what is right for you and your family in this moment and what your decisions may mean for the future.
But there is no shame in cancer.
You don’t have to go through this alone.
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