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Keeping Cancer a Secret


While I decided to tell friends, family and even TSA agents about my cancer, others are much more private about their diagnosis, and I wonder why.

I didn’t post it on Facebook, but I didn’t keep it a secret either. For me, choosing to share my breast cancer diagnosis with friends, family, my kids’ teachers, the TSA agent at the airport — basically everyone— ended up being a blessing.

My friends organized meal-trains following my double-mastectomy so my husband didn’t have to worry about feeding our three children; parents stepped up to drive the kids to and from activities; as for the TSA agent at the airport, he gently assured me that no, the body scanner would not detect my new breast implants.

Not everyone, however, chooses to share a cancer diagnosis, and as a daughter and daughter-in-law of two people who chose to keep their cancers secret, I have been left with sadness and confusion.

I was 16 when my father was first diagnosed with lymphoma. The day I found out, he had come home from surgery and was lying on his bed, his toes purple. He was vague about it, giving me little explanation. Throughout his ensuing 30-year battle with lymphoma, he rarely opened up about treatments, surgeries or recurrences, until well afterthefact.

I recall so many times saying to him, “Why didn’t you tell me?” His response always a dismissive, “Eh, not a big deal.”

Likewise, my father-in-law has kept his prostate cancer under wraps for years. While he told the family when he was first diagnosed, after his prostatectomy, we hardly heard another word about it. But throughout the subsequent years, there were many moments when something didn’t seem quite right with him, when he seemed unwell, overly tired, frail.

I once asked him outright about his prostate cancer and he said, “Let’s just say, I’ve been dealing with it for 20 years.” This was the first time he even acknowledged there had been more to it than the initial surgery.

During the COVID-19 pandemic we facetimed frequently, but he hid his face from the camera. It began to seem suspicious. After some time, he finally told my husband that his prostate cancer had spread, he was in treatment and had lost all of his hair. Like before, this would be the last anyone would really hear about it. While we know he is still in treatment, he is scarce with details and evasive about his status.

I have often wondered about this inclination to hide one’s cancer. Is it generational? There was a time when people would whisper “cancer,” or call it “The Big C.” Having cancer seemed to be attached to feelings of shame and embarrassment, which could possibly still resonate for some people.

For these two men in particular, the “patriarchs,” they likely feel that they didn’t want anyone to worry about them, they didn’t want to be a burden to their children, especially. On a more intrinsic, emotional level, there are undoubtedly feelings of weakness and questions about their own mortality — heavy stuff for men of a certain age and era.

Most of us who are diagnosed with cancer do struggle to maintain a sense of our identity at some point. No one wants to be defined by their cancer or to feel like people are treating them differently. I know that when I was going through my cancer, I did everything I could not to talk about it. I just wanted to have normal conversations and laugh and be the person I had always been. Sympathetic questions or tearful hugs made me uneasy, and I usually shrugged them off with a joke about how big my new breasts were going to be.

For everyone going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment, the emotional experience is personal and different. For whatever reasons a person may have for wanting to keep their cancer secret (family stress, employment concerns and so on), at the end of the day, we all need a support system. I know that I could not have gotten through without the people who rallied around my family to provide meals and carpools and good jokes (mostly good).

I have done a lot of reading on this to try to understand why people choose to keep an illness secret. From first-person accounts I have read, so many people who chose to keep their illness private regretted not telling their families sooner, and the family members who had been left in the dark ended up feeling hurt or resentful. Of course, all of this is individual, but I know that for my family, still coping with the ambiguity of a loved one’s illness, it’s always even more agonizing to be left wondering if the last time we see my father-in-law, will be the last time we ever see him.

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