Keeping Cancer a Secret

If you've recently been diagnosed with cancer, you may be tempted to keep this information private. The desire for secrecy is a common one, and there are many reasons for it.

Some patients "are in denial, don't want to face their fears or mortality, and are afraid of the pitying looks they'll get from people," says Carole Lieberman, MD, a Beverly Hills-based psychiatrist. "Many worry about losing work opportunities," or that their romantic partners will abandon them, says the doctor. "If they're single, they fear no one will ever love them again because of the changes in their body and the ongoing threat of death."

Talk Therapy

While such anxieties are common, keeping quiet about your cancer diagnosis is not the best option. In fact, discussing your condition with trusted family and friends will make your life easier before, during, and after treatment, according to Lieberman since:

  • Family and friends can lift your spirits and support you. Your loved ones can provide crucial, practical help like accompanying you to doctor's appointments and chauffeuring kids to and from school and extracurricular activities.
  • You'll tap into a network of beneficial information. If people know you have cancer, they'll be able to share their personal experiences and may offer helpful tips and insights on everything from new treatment options to support groups.
  • You may need to arrange a more flexible work schedule that can accommodate doctors' appointments.
  • You won't have to work at guarding the secret; keeping your diagnosis to yourself is an unnecessary burden.

In addition, "Numerous research studies continue to show that social isolation increases depression and can inhibit the body's immune system," observes LeslieBeth Wish, EdD, author of Smart Relationships: How Successful Women Can Find True Love. "So, even though talking about your illness is difficult, the benefits outweigh the shorter-term emotional anguish of discussing your disease with others."

And getting used to talking about your cancer has even more curative effects, Wish adds. "Discussing your situation with family, friends—and even colleagues and acquaintances—can help you create greater emotional and cognitive control over your life. The more you talk about your situation, the more you gain inner strength in confronting your fears and other feelings, and the more in charge you feel of your reactions, behavior, thoughts, and life."

Sharing Your Diagnosis

Discussing your diagnosis can be daunting, but the following tips are designed to make certain conversations less stressful:

Talking to Your Boss: Before discussing your diagnosis at work, "Make sure you've thought carefully about what you want," Lieberman advises. Consider these questions: "Do you want to continue in your job as is? Do you want time off just for treatment appointments, or do you want a break from work altogether? Do you want to become a part-time worker or give up your most stressful projects?" Be prepared to ask for what you want, and to explain any relevant information about your diagnosis and treatment to your supervisor.

Talking to Your Parents: Not so long ago, a cancer diagnosis was "more likely to be a death sentence," Lieberman points out, so older people may have a more fearful reaction than you might have anticipated. "Be prepared with literature that explains the treatments you will be undergoing, and the more optimistic prognosis to share with them."

Talking to Your Children: "It is best to delay sharing the diagnosis with kids who are not able to comprehend the likelihood of a positive treatment outcome," says Lieberman. "If they tell their friends at school, my mommy has cancer, they may get negative responses, such as 'OMG, she's going to die.'" But providing age-appropriate information about your condition can help children understand some of the facts you won't be able to conceal: "If chemotherapy is causing you to miss your child's school play or is making you sick, then it is best to let your children know that you are ill, but are getting treatment that will help you to get better," says Lieberman.

This kind of information can not only calm your children's fears, but can also prepare them for alterations in their routines, such as more time spent with caregivers, and less with mom and dad. You can talk to your kids about how they can help you out by being patient when you're too tired to play, or being well-behaved when others are looking after them. And "if the prognosis takes a turn for the worse, you will need to let them know more—a little at a time," says Lieberman.

It's likely that your loved ones will want to help out. You may not want well-wishers at your bedside when you're feeling poorly, but having family and friends drive you to and from doctor's appointments, provide meals for you and your children, or just listen to you when you feel overwhelmed can be immensely helpful—and will allow you to focus on your real priority: getting well.

LeslieBeth Wish EdD, MSS, reviewed this article.



Carole Lieberman, MD. Email interview, 15 and 19 October 2013

LeslieBeth Wish, EdD, MSS. Email interview, 24 October 2013

American Cancer Society. "How Do I Talk to People About My Diagnosis?" Revised 25 January

Mikkael A. Sekeres, MD. "Keeping Cancer a Secret." New York Times. Posted 4 July 2013

National Caregivers Library. "Sharing the Diagnosis." Copyright Family Care America, Inc.
Reprinted from Taking Time: Support for People With Cancer and the People Who Care About
Them, developed by the United States National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute.
Accessed 11 October 2013