Should Cancer be Kept a Secret?

By Sara Bondell - September 20, 2020

The public knew a lot about Chadwick Boseman. His age, where he was born and how he got his start in Hollywood. But when the 43-year-old died from colon cancer, it was clear he was keeping one thing private: his cancer diagnosis.

Actress Kelly Preston
Actress Kelly Preston at the Oscars. Photo credit Walt Disney Television | Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0 | Cropped from original

Actress Kelly Preston also battled her cancer out of the public eye. Fans were shocked when she passed away from breast cancer in July.

Even though most cancer patients don’t have celebrity status, they often struggle with the decision to share their diagnosis publicly or even with close friends and family.

“How and when people chose to speak up about a cancer diagnosis is a very personal choice,” said psychiatrist Margarita Bobonis, section chief of Behavioral Medicine at Moffitt Cancer Center. “In the beginning, it could be extremely overwhelming for the patient and their loved ones, and fear, sadness, denial, shame, uncertainty and even anger can affect everyone.”

While difficult, talking about your cancer with loved ones can be beneficial. It can help alleviate some of the emotional and physical burdens that come with a diagnosis and treatment and rally your support system. Bobonis says it’s okay to be selective in what you share and who you share it with.

Margarita Bobonis, MD, section chief of Behavioral Medicine
Margarita Bobonis, MD, section chief of Behavioral Medicine

“Remind them that you are still you and that it’s okay to just be there for you without saying anything,” she said. “You can also provide some guidance on if it is okay or not to ask questions.”

Speaking publicly about your diagnosis can be quite different than sharing it with loved ones, but it is also your choice. Keeping your diagnosis from the public eye may help you protect your emotions from unwanted or unexpected comments, remain in control and enjoy more aspects of your life more freely. Others may feel that sharing their experience publicly empowers them and provides an opportunity to help others on similar journeys.

If you are trying to decide if you want to share your cancer diagnosis, here are some tips:

  • Wait until you feel comfortable and figure out the best way to communicate with your loved ones. You may choose to communicate differently with different members of the family.
  • Talk things over. Sometimes it is helpful to go over specific information a few times so everyone has a better understanding and alliance with the plan. Speaking about cancer in small intervals may also be more helpful than all at once.
  • Discuss how you would like to give and get support from your loved ones and vice versa.
  • Discuss any expected role changes within the family to balance the work and properly care for yourself.
  • Be honest. Communicate your choices and emotions as they come. Coping through a cancer journey can be fluid as emotions may change depending on the circumstances.
  • If it is difficult to initiate the conversation with your loved ones, your care team can help. Additional resources from your social worker or therapist can help get these conversations started and assist you and your family to cope and work better together.

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Sara Bondell Medical Science Writer More Articles


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