To Tell Or Not To Tell, That Is The Question?

With the sad unexpected death of Jackie Collins this week many people revisited the question about how people deal with their own cancer diagnosis. This has hit the headlines again as Jackie decided to keep her news private, which was surprising to many, as she had been used to living her life in the public gaze. It has once again shown us what an incredible personal decision this can be. In this generation of sharing almost every micro event with each other on social media, I think this probably told us much more about her as a person than if she had shared her unfortunate news. Personally I couldn’t imagine living alone with that sort of news, and once I had received my own, my first plan was to tell my family and friends. Initially my thought was that I wanted people to know, so that they could understand what was going to be happening to me. I was facing a terrible treatment regime and wanted people to know what was going to be happening to me. At the time my feeling was that I was doing it for the benefit of others, but as time has gone on and complications have developed, I feel easier about things as everyone knows what is happening, so maybe I personally have benefited by sharing my experience.

My mother in contrast was diagnosed with breast cancer more than 20 years ago and kept that secret from her own mother. to-tell-or-not-to-tellI experienced the stress that my mother went through personally, to save worrying her mum. It was her choice which to this day I have never really understood, but accept her decision was private and made for the very best reasons. There are many things that we are not very good at sharing, no matter how well we know each other, family, best friends etc. Sex, health and money must be amongst the top three categories, also generally men are much worse at talking to each other than women. I know couples that don’t know how much each other earn, and retain separate accounts, despite being married for many years. But that is not my business is it? My view is always that people will tell me what they need me to know, if they don’t, then I don’t need to know it. That is fine by me, and I have found it to be a great guide in relationships. I think that as we get older we almost know what to ask and what not to, and sometimes it is the things that get left unsaid that tell us the most!

So is your decision to either share or not, seen as a selfish one? If you tell people, it will make them immediately see you differently “The truth is that when you tell them you have cancer, they instantly start treating you like a victim. You are defined by your illness, and I wasn’t having that.” (Jeannette Kupfermann)  This is a view I have heard consistently, and is certainly a little harsh, but of course it is natural for people to see you differently whether you like it or not. At that moment not only has everything changed for you, but also your family and friends too. I always felt that like with an uncomfortable secret that you kept for a long time, once you told someone else, their life was changed too! If you don’t tell people, most think that is very selfish as they would like to be able to have done something to help. But I also understand that  view too, in most cases it is done to spare others the pain that you are going through, with every best intention. However I would be personally devastated if my wife chose not to tell me something like that. I think that is something that would stay with me forever, to know that we couldn’t equally share the bad times as well as the good ones.

This is yet another way that every diagnosis of cancer is unique. We may have similar disease and treatment, but it impacts us all in a very different way, as we are shocked into making very quick decisions that will affect the rest of our lives. One of the earliest ones being do we tell our loved ones or not? It’s very hard to judge someone unless you have been in a similar position. Luckily for me, my wife was at the meeting when I got my diagnosis and my poor prognosis was explained. We didn’t realise we had gone to hospital for that purpose but in many respects it was very reassuring that my wife heard the news with me. My first thoughts were how to tell my children and then my colleagues and friends. It was certainly a tough job, and my concern was also how everyone would receive the news.

That was a few years ago, and we have all lived my experiences together. Everyone wanted to come and visit me in hospital even though there were some terribly upsetting times, but it was their encouragement that really kept me going. That support is still with me today as I face different struggles now. We all talk easily, and I always do my best to make light of things, telling people was the best decision I made. But I have seen several people who have not told their loved ones and I respect their decision too. It is not my business and is entirely their own personal decision, one that I’m sure they made for their best reasons too.

How did you deal with your diagnosis or that of someone you know? Did you feel the need to hide anything from people? Did you feel better if you shared things? Did you share most things or only what you wanted people to know? As always it would be great to hear your views and experiences below.




  1. I’m a teller. To everyone – on social media, online in the grocery store when someone comments on my hat/hair/bald head. When I first got diagnosed, I had a “Fuck cancer” party and sent an evite to 150 people – my house was packed. the night before my mastectomy, I threw a “boob-bye” party and had only female guests. I know people react differently to their diagnosis. One friend, a breast cancer survivor, didn’t reach out to me when I told her of my diagnosis. Finally, I texted her (a little annoyed) and said “I’d like to hear from you.” She called right away, and confessed that when she was diagnosed, she kept it a secret and thought I didn’t want to be disturbed or discuss. That’s when I learned everyone reacts differently, and to ask for what you want.
    As a blogger, I tell it all:

  2. Hi Chiara, I love the “Fuck cancer party,” and your incredible humour! But you are absolutely right, everyone deals with it differently. I am probably in the middle of you and your friend, I wouldn’t party but I want people to know why things are happening.
    As you well know there is no right and wrong way of dealing with cancer, only your way. I absolutely love your blog btw. Thanks so much for sharing your incredible experiences. Chris x

  3. I met a former work colleague for lunch in August and she told me about her next door neighbour:

    He started behaving out of character last year, leaving work early, going missing without explanation! He was diagnosed with terminal cancer and had not even told his wife. It was only at the end of his life that he could not keep it a secret any more. After he passed away, his wife found a coiled wire shorthand pad with all the things he’s been thinking for months recorded there, mostly with great humour. He said he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered under the apple tree that never produced any apples, not to let Rusty, their little dog, wee on them, that he had a bet with a mate that Chelsea would win the football cup and he wanted his wife to collect his winnings, that if there is any afterlife he would see what he could do about making the apple tree produce some apples, all the years they had lived there they had never had an apple on that tree. It could be coincidence, but his wife doesn’t think so, but that tree was laden with apples this year.

    I was strangely touched by this story, particularly as Joyce my former colleague is a person of integrity with no religious beliefs or connections.

  4. Hi Susan, thanks for sharing that incredible story! It is a great example of what I was talking about in the piece. I do wonder how is wife felt though? My personal feeling was that I wanted my wife to know everything, and to leave nothing hidden, but others feel they be protecting their partner.
    This is yet another example of how we are all affected differently by cancer. My best to you as always, Chris

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