It would appear more and more ‘celebrities’ are choosing to keep their cancer a secret or at least keeping it away from the public eye. But why do many choose to keep their diagnosis a secret?
A recent Bupa survey found that one in four women (and nearly a fifth of men) who are diagnosed with cancer consider not telling their family, and one in six people know someone who decided not to tell a close family member or friend about a cancer diagnosis.
Of course it is all down to personal choice and personal circumstances. From Jackie Collins, David Bowie and even more recently Terry Wogan, it would appear to varying degrees they kept their cancer a secret. But why was this the case? Could it have something to do with self-preservation? The idea of self belief, that nothing is seriously wrong. If you don’t admit to others then you don’t have to admit or acknowledge your illness yourself. Or is it more complex than this?
Everyone is entitled to their privacy, that goes without saying. But in a world of open exposure, where the internet empowers everyone – anyone to speak, create, learn and share, a deeply private person facing a challenging time would find this daunting to say the least. To some, secrecy seems the most natural thing in the world. Certainly social media has played a key role in raising the profile of life threatening illnesses, from recognising symptoms, diagnoses to raising millions for charities and hospitals. All very admirable, but does this come at a price? Could this lead some to overshare?
Or is it a ‘British’ thing? Stiff upper lip and all that. To show emotion is a sign of weakness and lack of control. This often goes hand in hand with not wishing to appear a burden to others.
And of course there are often others to consider; close family, friends and colleagues. Could you be protecting them from the impact of cancer by not sharing?
Maybe some of the more spiritual amongst us may consider the removal of negative emotions helps us in our fight against cancer. The constant emotional impact of telling others and being defined by your illness is physically and emotionally draining. I understand, having relived the horror of my initial diagnosis and conversations with my consultant and oncologist every time I fielded questions from concerned loved ones. At a time when most want normality (or as near to it as possible) who wouldn’t want to avoid the long faces, tilting heads and sympathetic nods and continuous questions about their health?
But of course it is all well-meaning. Most family and friends only wish to help and support (even if it is misguided at times). Those who keep their diagnosis to themselves may also find it challenging when they finally do spill their cancer beans - their friends and family may not understand why they weren't told. So it begs the question why not?
By whispering or mouthing ‘the c word’ instead of saying cancer makes it seem like a dirty little secret. Something to be embarrassed about. But it’s not. It’s an illness. It’s not our fault. Nothing to be ashamed of. Cancer is often a long journey, parts of which can be very lonely. Acknowledging and accepting support and help can be tricky, especially if you are used to be independent, but it is often essential. Asking for support should be a sign of strength not weakness.
Being open and honest allows those closest to you to prepare themselves for difficult times. It allows opportunities for them to ask questions and to support one another. Friends and family usually find out at some point anyway. People especially those closest to you often sense when something isn’t right – even children - and this can be misinterpreted.
Very often it is impossible to keep it secret, even if you want to. Some are forced to out their illness due to physical changes related to the treatment - hair loss, severe weight loss or weight gain and acute weakness.
Just as there’s no one right way to live with cancer (which is a whole other issue - maybe best to save for another blog post!) there’s no right or wrong decision about when and who you tell. It just has to be right for you.
It would appear Jackie Collins made a conscious decision to keep her illness a secret early on. When she finally revealed the truth, she said, “I did it my way, as Frank Sinatra would say. I’ve written five books since the diagnosis, I've lived my life, I've travelled all over the world, I have not turned down book tours and no one has ever known until now, when I feel as though I should come out with it.”