The Diagnosis Dilemma

To tell or not to tell?

In February 2007 Roz Zakheim learned she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Los Angeles lawyer told her husband, her son, her friends, and her coworkers. But she didn’t tell her 91-year-old mother. “I’m the person primarily responsible for her,” Zakheim says. “I was just so worried about how devastating it would be to her.” 

Many cancer patients wrestle with the question, should I tell? And if so, whom to tell? Cancer experts believe most people join the candid cancer crowd.

“I told everybody right away,” says Hester Hill Schnipper, chief of oncology social work at Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center in Boston, who has twice been diagnosed with breast cancer. “I’m one of those people who had trouble not telling the person in the checkout line at the grocery store.” She is a fan of disclosure: “I think it’s cathartic, a way of starting to own it. Every time you say it aloud, it’s a little more real.”

Then there are the selective tellers, like Zakheim. Some keep news of a cancer diagnosis from elderly or emotionally frail relatives. Others inform virtually no one—perhaps just a few members of their inner circle.

“When I was a young eager beaver social worker, I would have thought there was never a reason not to tell,” says Schnipper. Now she understands the impulse to cover up. “I’ve changed my opinion. Sometimes the right decision is not telling your 90-year-old mother in a nursing home in Florida.” Nonetheless, in cancer circles, honesty is usually regarded as the best policy. 

Cultural influences keep some people from sharing their diagnosis. Among Hindu religionists, cancer is often viewed as karmic payback for bad deeds from a past life, says Zul Surani, a community health educator who co-founded Saath, a nonprofit group that has a program to assist South Asian cancer patients. “One of our survivors said people in her religious community were telling others, ‘Stay away even from her shadow, because she’ll bring you bad luck,’ ” says Surani.

The Latino community, by contrast, has a tendency to get the whole family involved in supporting a cancer patient, says Amelie Ramirez, director of the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. But she also sees stoic Latinos who think they can handle it on their own.

A fatalistic streak about cancer seals many lips. “In the Chinese community, people still think, ‘There’s nothing I can do about cancer, I will die soon,’ ” says Evaon Wong-Kim, PhD, a professor of social work at California State University, East Bay. Such a patient may not want to burden children, or even a spouse, with a cancer diagnosis. Yet this is hardly a Chinese-only viewpoint, Wong-Kim is quick to point out. Such feelings can be found in virtually every community, from African-American to white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, particularly among older generations.

And in every community, cancer patients make decisions based on their own personality and the personalities of their family members and friends. Louise Scott, 47, of Little Rock, Arkansas, told lots of people about her diagnosis of colon cancer but didn’t bring certain out-of-town buddies into the loop for a few months.

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