Keeping Your Cancer a Secret

Beth Brophy Health Guide
  • Last week, I was sworn to secrecy by a friend telling me news about her friend’s breast cancer diagnosis. I know her friend with breast cancer slightly, really only in passing, and I was taken aback that she was attempting to keep her diagnosis a secret. First of all, it seems like a doomed effort--won’t her friends and children, for example, notice when she loses her hair from chemotherapy, and stops driving carpools because she’s not feeling well?

    Also, it seems so retro, the idea that cancer is a big, shameful secret. Growing up, I remember how my mother and other adults shied away from using the word “cancer,” as if calling it a tumor somehow made it more benign. I thought we had left that kind of silly thinking behind a decade or two ago.
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    After I voiced these thoughts, my friend explained that those weren’t her friend’s reasons for trying to keep her diagnosis a secret. She just needed some time to herself to adjust to having cancer. She didn’t want to be inundated with phone calls and sympathetic questions and people dropping by with food and offering to help. That I understand a little better, although it still seems impractical. And there are ways around talking to people you don’t feel like talking to. In the scary, horrible, hectic days after my diagnosis a decade ago, I told a few key people the bad news myself, and then refused to answer the constantly ringing phone. If there was anyone I wanted to speak to, and there were very few, I could call them.

    In those days, I was still holding out against getting an answering machine. Other helpful people intervened. Immediately after hearing the bad news, my friends Susan and Chuck came over with an answering machine that they installed, so at least I would get my messages. Then my sister arrived from New York for a few days and began screening calls. “No, I’m sorry you can’t speak to Beth now,” I overheard her telling a close friend who had dissolved into tears. “Call back another time.” (Maybe I’ve added the “I’m sorry” part. To say my sister’s telephone manner is “no nonsense” is putting it kindly.)

    So, although I remain skeptical about the practicality of it, I wish my friend’s friend the best at keeping her news under wraps for as long as she finds necessary. Then I hope she learns what I did: That no matter how much you value handling things yourself, when you have cancer, sometimes the kindest thing you can do is let others try to help you.
Published On: January 27, 2006