When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I became a stigma.
After finding out about my diagnosis, my mom’s first words to me were “Don’t tell anyone.” I cried, telling her I needed to talk to people about this. Her response was, “Nobody needs to know about it. Don’t tell our family or your friends. They will tell everyone about that “thing” you have.” My father concurred.
I didn’t tell them that I already told a couple of my friends about “it” and “that thing” (aka cancer). So I lied to my mom and dad and promised them I wouldn’t tell a soul. And for a while I kept my promise: my illness was a secret I swaddled in major deception. When extended family members called just to chat and asked how I was doing, my answer was always “just fine.” If I had a doctor’s appointment and I wasn’t available to answer my phone, I lied and made some excuse for why I was “busy.” One night, I was sobbing at home and refusing to answer calls. My call-back excuse to callers a couple of days later was that I was at a party.
A pity party, that is.
Each time I lied with a cheery voice, I felt silenced and shamed and anguished. My secret became an unbearable, weighty burden.
The dam finally broke.
To my parents’ dismay, I “outed” myself to my extended family, as well as friends and acquaintances. And during treatment, I spoke openly about my experiences to support groups and various professionals. And I received lots of love and compassion.
But my motor mouth really took off with my bilateral mastectomy years later. By that time, I was a pro at airing out my dirty laundry.
I told the guys who delivered my new couch about my upcoming bilateral mastectomy (more on that in a future post), I told strangers about the surgery, published my story in a popular anthology, made media appearances, and found blogging as a means to public discourse about breast cancer.
Recently, an acquaintance’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. The mother’s request of her daughter: not to tell anyone about the diagnosis – not family, not friends. (The daughter’s spouse spilled the beans to me.) The daughter’s loyal decision is to respect her mother’s wishes and keep quiet about her mother’s illness.
My point is not to judge this mother and daughter’s decision to keep quiet. There is no correct way to handle and cope with a cancer diagnosis. Everyone has a different coping mechanism. Keeping a disease secret might work for some individuals; others, not so much.
But this keeping-a-disease-secret phenomenon got me thinking. And I realized it’s a pretty common reaction when a loved one is dealing with cancer. I also understand that family dynamics are pretty complex. Perhaps a family believes in pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps and are appalled at having tons of concerned people bothering them with offers of help. A family could be in denial about the illness. Other families build walls around themselves. Still, other families, as in my case, believe the “C” word is a stigma and loaded with a type of shame that I don’t quite understand.
If you are in a family keeping cancer (or any illness for that matter) a secret, just know this:
You are not alone. Many, many families keep cancer a secret.
Cancer is insidious in family relationships. Strife can occur between family members.
You might want to seek help from a professional support team.
Today, my mom and I have a good relationship, something I couldn’t say when she swore me to silence after diagnosis. To this day, my mom still cannot say the word “cancer.” But I tell her when I go to the “cancer doctor,” and instead of turning away, she now listens and wants to discuss how I am.
For my parents and me, the veil of shame has finally been lifted, leaving mutual respect in its place.
For a related post, see The Price of Silence.
Have you ever felt compelled to keep quiet about a cancer diagnosis?
How did you and your family handle a cancer diagnoses?
Please feel free to share your stories.
Tags: breast cancer, cancer, family and cancer, silence and cancer, stigma of cancer