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“Do I Have to Tell My Family I Have Cancer?”

Last week I went into the doctor’s to get a chest x-ray. I was having trouble breathing and they thought it might be a clot. No clot, but they found a mass on my left lobe. They did a biopsy and a week later and discovered I have lung cancer. I’m terrified, of course, but the doctors are all very reassuring that they got it early enough. I’m scheduled to go into surgery next week to have it removed and then I’ll probably need some chemo for added measure. Thankfully, I avoided needing radiation to shrink it.

My question is: would it be wrong if I didn’t tell my family? The past two years have not been kind to us, starting with my mother dying unexpectedly. My niece spent a week in a coma after her “father” shook her, and my sister is dealing with her permanent disabilities, as well as a new baby. My older brother is finally sober after falling into a drug addiction that almost killed him. My uncle died unexpectedly three months ago, and my cousin died last month. My aunt has always been a second parent but she’s barely holding it together and her only other child is in Afghanistan. I’ve never smoked but everyone else in my family does. I’m afraid they’re going to try to blame themselves. My family has already been through so much pain and I don’t want to cause them anymore. It’s feasible to keep it a secret, I just don’t know if it’s right. I want to protect them, but I’m also scared for myself. — Scary Diagnosis


Well, first of all, I’m very sorry to hear about your diagnosis and I’ll keep you in my prayers that the surgery and chemo are successful in treating the cancer.

As for your question, I can’t say it would be “wrong” of you not to tell your family. I can understand your hesitancy to share the information, but I do think you need a strong support system to help you through what will surely be a grueling ordeal. Maybe that isn’t your family right now. Maybe, after everything they’ve been through recently, they simply don’t have the emotional reserve to provide the support you really need. If that’s the case, who can you tell? I would make a short list of people you know you can depend on and then immediately tell them what you’re going through and ask if you can count on them to be your “surrogate family” during this time. Tell them what that means — as much as you can anticipate at this point what it will mean. Late night phone calls? Probably. Drives to the hospital for your surgery and chemo? Definitely. Distractions when you need it and shoulders to cry on when you need those? Yes. So, make a list of people you’re close with who are most likely to have the emotional reserve to provide those things and tell them.

As for your real family, there’s no rule that says you have to keep them informed on everything that happens to you — even something as major as a cancer diagnosis. If you feel in your heart that telling them would hurt you more than help you, then you need to really consider that. But if you’re simply avoiding telling them because you don’t want to add to their hurt, that’s really something else altogether. Yes, this news, without a doubt, is going to hurt them, but in the event your health, God forbid, declined rather than improved, imagine how devastated they’d be learning the truth then? Sometimes protecting the people we love from pain means softening the blow with a smaller punch now than a bigger hit later. But let’s hope your surgery and the chemo prove successful and you never have less that a very good prognosis.

*If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

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{ 31 comments… add one }

avatar CollegeCat April 19, 2011, 9:14 am

I think this decision is definitely yours alone. Statistically people with positive attitudes and positive support systems fare better with diagnoses like yours. If your family can’t provide this (for understandable reasons, clearly there is already a lot on their plate) it may be for the best to lean on friends instead. However if you don’t have the support Wendy outlined above you may want to reconsider keeping this a secret. You really will be weak and sick after surgery and chemo and you must have someone around who is committed to getting you through this rough time both physically and emotionally. Weigh your options with this in mind and if you still feel that you should keep this to yourself, don’ feel bad for making a decision that is best for you. The only thing you should be fighting right now is the cancer, not guilt.

avatar CJ April 19, 2011, 9:15 am

First of all, good luck with your diagnosis. I’m glad to hear they caught it early. Lots of love & prayers are being sent out to you.

Second of all, I agree with Wendy that you don’t have to tell them, but you also have to consider the fact that this is a new aspect of the family’s medical history that they may need to have. If I recall correctly, having a first degree relative with lung cancer does give you an increase in your lung cancer risk. So your parents, siblings, children, etc. should be told of this new development in your medical history. If this is something you want to wait until things are better and you’ve been through treatment to tell them- that’s fine, but they should find out at some point.

avatar PFG-SCR April 19, 2011, 9:22 am

I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis, LW, but very glad that it was caught early. I agree with Wendy’s advice to you. While I’m sure your family would want to know, it’s ultimately your decision as to whether you will share this with them. My own mother never told her family (parents, siblings, etc.) or any friends when she was diagnosed with cancer. She had different reasons than yours, but she felt very strongly about it. That was many years ago, and she’s still never told them, and she has no regrets.

While I don’t know the extent of the chemotherapy you will need, I have seen loved ones get completely wiped out from it. It’s unlikely that you won’t need some assistance during your treatment (drive to/from appointment, making a meal, helping with errands, etc.), so you should have a support system in place to help, even if it’s just to offer emotional support if you need it. You are obviously trying to be very stoic about this given the situations facing various family members, but don’t forget that you are going through something very significant, and there’s nothing wrong with needing to rely on others for help during this difficult time.

Good luck, LW.

avatar TMSC April 19, 2011, 9:28 am

First of all, I want to say how sorry I am that you will be going through this (very scary) ordeal. My heart goes out to you, and please know that even though I don’t personally know you, my thoughts and well wishes are with you during this time. My mother had small cell lung cancer and has been in remission for over 7 years. It was very scary, but she was strong and persevered, and you can too.

I do agree with everything Wendy said in her response, but I just wanted to add one thing for you to consider. I have been on the other side, where my family members try to “protect” me and not tell me when serious health issues occur. Please consider how your decision not to tell them in order to save them heartache now could affect them in the future when they find you went through this and did not come to them for support. It is more difficult than I can express to find out someone you are close with and love has kept something like this from you. It has happened to me, and it honestly hurts worse than the initial heartache ever would have.

They are your family, and you know them better than anyone here does. And you know yourself, and what you need to get through this time. If what you need is to keep this to yourself for now, your needs should come first. I just wanted to present another point of view for you to consider in making the decision whether to tell them.

Good luck, and again, my thoughts are with you and a quick recovery.

avatar callmehobo April 19, 2011, 9:39 am

I agree with you. The LW has absolutely no obligation to tell her family, but she should realize that not telling them may lead to conflict or hurt feelings later on…

Although, doesn’t chemotherapy cause alopecia? If she is close by her family won’t they notice that she doesn’t have any hair? I’m just curious.

Good luck- LW!

avatar TMSC April 19, 2011, 9:46 am

I don’t think it causes the exact same symptoms in everyone, and I think it partly depends on the type and intensity of the chemotherapy? My mom did lose her hair, though. And you could definitely tell she was having a health issue of some kind. (Even without the hair loss). So even if it doesn’t cause this specific symptom in the LW, most likely there will be some kind of visual difference in her appearance, even if small. Her family may well notice there is something going on…

avatar TheOtherMe April 19, 2011, 9:50 am

Chemo doesn’t always cause alopecia, it depends on the person.

avatar callmehobo April 19, 2011, 9:54 am

Thanks, I was a little confused. When my grandmother and aunt went through chemo, they both lost their hair- I didn’t realize that that particular side effect was dependent upon the person…

Jess Jess of CityGirlsWorld.com April 19, 2011, 1:19 pm

Piping since I (unfortunately) know a lot on the topic of chemotherapy. Actually, hair loss depends much much more on the drugs being used –less on the person. Most of the big guns will cause alopecia in nearly all patients. There are exceptions but they are unusual.

avatar Kat April 20, 2011, 8:39 pm

Only if it’s really strong. My mom underwent chemo AND radiation and her hair stayed atop her head through 5 years of treatment.

avatar kali April 19, 2011, 12:30 pm

I have a coworker whose family has had a lot of cancers and other serious health issues in the past five years. Her father hid a recent cancer-related surgery from the kids as he didn’t want to scare them unnecessarily. My coworker was furious and saddened when she found out. She wanted to be there with him, hold his hand, talk to him about his fears… and she was also upset that if something tragic had happened, she would find out through a phone call.

Since LW is trying to save her family heartache and isn’t estranged, in her place, I’d think very carefully about not telling them. You can stress that you have a support system in place (and please do have one prior to starting treatments) but you wanted them to be aware and to keep you in their thoughts.

Keep us posted, LW, we’re on your side and I am sending healing energy your way.

avatar cat-i-z April 19, 2011, 9:32 am

Sorry to hear about your diagnosis and your family tragedies!

It’s up to you whether you tell your family or not. I’m with Wendy that you need to have a support system. My mother had cancer and I feel our support helped her beat the cancer. Reach out to someone you love and trust.

Praying for you and your family LW!!!!!!!!!!!

avatar SGMcG April 19, 2011, 9:47 am

It’s sounds like you’re going through so much along with the diagnosis. So sorry for the burdens you’re currently bearing. Although it is noble for you to be so considerate of their feelings in not wanting to add to their troubles, your family may not consider it a bother when they hear about your illness. Yet the decision to tell your family about the cancer is ultimately yours. Bear in mind though LW, that your diagnosis will be important for their personal medical histories, as well as yours – so please consider telling them someday.

If you choose not to tell your family now in light of their current troubles – that’s perfectly fine too. Just please make sure that there is a support system to help you along the way in the midst of chemo. Besides tapping your network of friends, you can ask your doctor about cancer support groups in your area – they’ll be sure to provide some resources for you. If you’re a member of a religious group, I’m sure some support can be provided there as well. You can even go online and research available groups for support – not just us Dear Wendy fans. :)

You can be scared for yourself LW, but you don’t have to be afraid alone. Good luck!

avatar Elle April 19, 2011, 10:03 am

LW, you have my sympathy for what you’re going through.

About whether you should tell your family. Think about it if the tables were turned. If someone else in your family were to deal with your illness, would you like to know?

Everyone else covered other things I wanted to say. Wish you all the best

avatar TheOtherMe April 19, 2011, 10:03 am

I was really sad to read your letter. I agree that your decision is a very personal one but also know from experience that you will need support and it would definitely hurt your family to find out about this after the fact.

As a person who has also suffered countless family tragedies, I completely understand your concern about adding more stress and even though you have all the chances in the world of beating this, cancer is still a very huge thing to go through, especially if you are alone.

Cancer has slowly taken out most of my family members and my mom has fought 2 consecutive cancers for over 2 years, throat and lung. ( sorry to this who already know this story ) she is cancer free now but I just don’t know how she would have been able to get through this without our whole family rallying together during those 2 years.

You seem very optimistic and one thing you might not have considered is how inspiring it will be for your family to see how strong you are and how much you are willing to fight.

I truly wish you the best of luck and all the support you can get.

avatar TheOtherMe April 19, 2011, 10:05 am

Oups ! I meant to say ( sorry to THOSE who already know this story )…

avatar TheOtherMe April 19, 2011, 10:17 am

One more thing, Hospitals usually offer free family therapy for those who have had a loved one diagnosed with Cancer. It was a tremendous help for our family, maybe it would help your family in taking away some of the fear of what can be expected with your treatment.

avatar ladiejoy April 19, 2011, 10:04 am

Like everyone else, I am saddened to hear of your diagnosis but it’s great that they caught it early. I have unfortunately had to deal with lung cancer with multiple family members. My grandmother never told anyone because she didn’t want them to worry. I don’t blame her for that at all.

Yes, you should make at least several people aware of your situation so they can help you when you are feeling badly. I can’t see going through any sort of chemo and not being physically and/or emotionally drained as a result; so it’s a good idea to have that support system in place.

It is awful what your family has been through. That said, sometimes those that deal with hardships such as these are stronger than one might give them credit for, and it’s easy to underestimate those folks that deal with incredible challenges on a daily basis. How would you feel if the situation was reversed? Would you want to know if it was your brother, or your niece? Ultimately there is no obligation to tell your family. But sometimes, not telling those that you are close with about such a serious situation as this could be MORE hurtful than telling them.

I’d suggest riding it out for a little while… begin your treatments, see how you feel. Wait until you get your next PET scan or whatever, then make your decision. You don’t have to decide right away, and if you really start to feel badly then your family would likely be grateful to have the opportunity to support you and give you all the love you need to get you through this. Either way, good luck and I hope you fare well during treatment.

avatar Painted_lady April 19, 2011, 10:21 am

It was said before – that keeping health problems a secret can be terribly hurtful. Depending on the type of people your family are, being treated like they couldn’t handle it/weren’t important enough to tell/didn’t need to know/however they may perceive it is incredibly hurtful. You also have to be aware that if you’re keeping it a secret, you can’t tell anyone who knows your family or might come into contact with them. My mom decided to keep a recent health scare a secret from me because she “didn’t want to worry anyone until there’s something to worry about.” My dad let it slip one night at dinner, and now I’m worried that anytime my mom has a doctor’s appointment it’s for some awful thing she’s decided not to tell me about.

I totally understand if maybe you just don’t want to deal with your family yet. And that’s absolutely your right. But lying to them – and yes, there’s a point where you will have to lie, rather than just “not tell” – in order to protect them is well-intended but ultimately will hurt them. And if you’re going to go that route, have a contingency plan to address the issues when – not if – they find out you’ve been this sick and kept it from them intentionally.

I’m so sorry you’re going through this. My heart goes out to you, and whatever you decide, don’t go through this alone.

avatar TheOtherMe April 19, 2011, 10:34 am

@Painted_lady: I’m sorry that you had a recent family health scare but I do understand wanting to protect someone before knowing the final results, especially if there has been a history of illness. I am sure your mom was just trying to spare you unnecessary stress and that you would definitely be informed of anything serious.

3 weeks ago my dad took some scans that revealed a dark mass on his lung. Because my mom already had lung cancer, he didn’t let us know ( except for my mom) about any of his tests until they came back completely clear. I was sad that he faced this insecurity on his own but I think I would have done the same if I had been in his shoes.

avatar Painted_lady April 19, 2011, 5:30 pm

Yeah, I mean, it hurt, but I was really using that example to point out how impractical it might be to tell some people and not others. And I know she meant to do it to protect me, but then it fell out of my dad’s mouth, and that definitely added hurt and a sense of mistrust to the worry that was going to be there anyway.

It depends on how isolated her family is from the rest of her life, but she needs support, and sometimes things slip out. She may have already thought of this, just offering up another possibility.

fast eddie fast eddie April 19, 2011, 10:47 am

There aren’t sufficient words to express how sorry I am for you and hopeful for a positive outcome. A member of my family who lives in another state became gravely ill lately and nobody told me until she was recovered. Their justification was that I was dealing with enough at home already. Not quite the end of the world sort of thing but I wish they’d told me early on.

Your going to need help during your recovery. Family and friends are a major source of that help. They are amazingly strong and I think they’d be much more consoled and willing if you let them know ahead of time. There are resources in most communities for support that can make your ordeal endurable. Seek them out now while your still able in preparation for the recovery process. If your able please keep us up to date on this venue. We’ll be here to listen and encourage. (hug)

avatar kerrycontrary April 19, 2011, 11:23 am

I’m so sorry to hear about your cancer and your family issues as of late! It really puts other peoples smaller problems in perspective. I think it is up to you if you don’t tell your family, but Wendy is right, you need a surrogate family. That means someone who will be there waiting for hours during chemo while you toss your cookies, those emotional breakdowns, and someone to care for you after surgery. This can be a lot to ask of friends, but if you have that sort of support system in your social life then I think there is nothing wrong with keeping it from your family. I agree that they’ve been through a lot lately and it made be hard for them to support you in this time…or they might surprise you. Best of luck with your treatment.

avatar HmC April 19, 2011, 11:45 am

LW, I am very sorry to hear about your diagnosis, and I wish you good luck with your upcoming battle.

I don’t have much to add to what others have said, other than one tidbit of personal experience. My beloved grandfather, one of my favorite people in the world, was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer a few months ago. He didn’t want his grandchildren to know about it, but it ended up trickling down to us eventually. I understood that he wanted to protect us, he doesn’t like to make a fuss over himself or cause anguish to others. But, I do feel better knowing that he’s getting treatment for his pain. And, if things should go south with his health, I am preparing myself emotionally to support him and the rest of our family. Personally, I prefer knowing. I don’t take it personally that he didn’t want me to know- I appreciate why he did what he did and I trust that it was the best decision for him at the time. But a tiny part of me was slightly… offended isn’t the right word… slightly hurt I guess, that he didn’t think I could handle the information.

Of course, my situation is not the same- my grandfather has lived a full and long life, and I am a pretty strong person and have not recently suffered the losses of LW’s family.

I know this was rambling and inconclusive… I guess mostly because I don’t feel like anyone can tell the LW what to do here. I’m praying for you LW. Stay as positive as you can, be strong, don’t be afraid to lean on people if you need to, whoever that might be for you. For me, being able to support someone I love when they really need me would be a privilege.

avatar Lindsay April 19, 2011, 12:33 pm

I’m sorry to hear about that! I can totally understand your hesitation about telling your family. I had surgery once and then ended up in the emergency room and still didn’t tell my parents until I was home a day later (they live far away, too, so it’s not like they could have done anything). Personally, it would stress me out more to have to deal with my family.

Anyway, like the others have said, it’s totally up to you. Obviously, if your family finds out you didn’t tell them, they might be hurt. And even if having their support doesn’t seem all that supportive to you (which I understand), the stress of keeping it a secret might be worse than the stress of telling them. I’ve read some books about cancer and how to help the body fight it, and stress does not help at all. I see a therapist sometimes, and she always emphasizes not to get in other people’s heads. It’s your job to do your thing, and whatever they do or think is their business. Good luck!

Jess Jess of CityGirlsWorld.com April 19, 2011, 1:32 pm

LW, I am a cancer survivor (2007) and did treatment trifecta of surgery, chemo, and radiation. I’m very sorry that you’re joining me in this club that no one seeks membership in :-) And I won’t feed you the crap about it building character (which it does) or that you will become stronger and wiser (which you will) because the immediate truth in front of you is that THIS SUCKS. It sucks SO MUCH.

Do not underestimate your family’s ability to be there for you in this time of crisis, no matter whatever other burdens they are shouldering right now. You need them. You will need them even more when treatment begins. Not just because you will need rides to the hospital and someone to help with meals but because cancer assaults your mind and spirit. It finds your emotional weak spots by working its way into every crack and crevice of your life.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I found that my relationship with my parents regressed to a form of my early childhood. I wanted no one more than my mom and dad. My mom cooked for me, she bought me nice things, she let me sob on her shoulder, she listened, she entertained me, she babied me. She made it ok. My dad: he defended me. He took care of things. He paid the bills. He reported the news to worried relatives so I wouldn’t have to take calls. He promised it would all be ok.

Even if you are strong enough to do this on your own, you deserve not to have to. In this time, you need to be selfish and treat yourself the way you would treat any other member of your family in this situation. With kindness and sympathy.

In cancer, one of the very hardest things to do in the early phase is to let go the control of your life. To take on the identity of the patient (aka the victim) and to learn that is OK to be that. That you NEED to be that.

If you won’t accept help now during a cancer diagnosis, what WOULD it take?

Not to mention, how could you possibly keep this hidden? Unless they live faraway, how will you hide your fatigue, hair loss, missed work, surgical wounds, etc? For months?

Last point, DO include your trusted friends in addition to your family (or in place of them if your family is not in a position to help). A piece of advice, appoint one of your closest and most responsible friends to be your contact person. Allow he or she to coordinate with all the other friends offering rides, food, gifts, etc. The offers for support can actually be overwhelming. Let that person manage things for you so you can rest.

My heart is with you (and feel free to find me offline if I can lend any help or resources)

Jess

avatar AKchic April 19, 2011, 2:10 pm

I am sorry for the losses your family has suffered in the last few years. Obviously, you care for your family deeply, which is why you are hesitant to place another emotional burden on them. I can completely understand. My grandfather felt the same way. He watched my mother’s 1st marriage (to my father) fall apart. Then my uncle have two marriages fall apart. And two rehab stints. My mom have the guy she was going to marry die of heart failure while she drove him to work. He watched three granddaughters drop out of high school to have children (me included) and watch me deal with an abusive marraige and near fatal divorce. He saw my sister nearly die because my mother ignored her diabetic symptoms because my mother didn’t WANT to admit that the symptoms were there.
So, he chose not to tell anyone when he started feeling “sick”. He continued to drink and smoke and eat what he wanted and do what he wanted. He figured that there was too many other things going on and it really didn’t matter because he’d already lived a good life. Then he had a heart attack. While they were working on him in the ER he stroked out. He was in a coma for 5 days. In that time, we found out that he had KNOWN for over 5 years that he had emphysema, and for at least 3 years that he had lung cancer. This was on top of what everyone knew was high blood pressure. Turned out he’d been hiding congenitive heart failure from us all for over a year. He had been slowly dying on us for over 5 years and had not said a word to anyone. Didn’t want to worry anybody. He spent 3 months in the ICU before going to an extended care facility for another 4 months. He spent his last 4 months at home, in bed before passing away.
Because he didn’t tell anyone, nobody was prepared for it. He didn’t prepare my grandmother and we had to help her learn how to budget the bills and housing expenses (my grandpa did it all). My grandma doesn’t drive. She has never had a license to drive. We had to start adjusting OUR schedules to ensure that she was taken care of. Had we known of his declining health, we could have planned better, and things would have been easier on us.

I know you think you are saving your family some heartache, but I think that you need to tell at least someone. Just in case. You never know what could happen. You could get an unrelated illness that could be exacerbated by your cancer and you could end up hospitalized and on death’s door. You could end up sicker than expected. Lean on your friends but do not underestimate the resilience of your family. They need you and your trust just as much as you need them.

Get well soon.

avatar Britannia April 19, 2011, 4:42 pm

I think you should tell them – not just for the support, but also because they need to know that their cigarette habits have consequences. Maybe this could help them quit – it’s better late than never.

avatar moonflowers April 19, 2011, 10:16 pm

Agree. One of my aunts developed breast cancer, and it wasn’t until her diagnosis that my other aunts (her sisters) began to pay more attention to their health. Since there’s a genetic element to some cancers, telling them may give them valuable information to help them make life-saving choices themselves.

avatar if they're nearby, they'll know April 20, 2011, 5:51 am

You are under absolutely no obligation to tell your family, but if they live nearby, they will be able to tell. Chemo is usually accompanied by physical changes, including hair loss, weight loss and frequent nausea. If they’re local or are going to be visiting you for any reason, tell them before they discover it themselves.

avatar twiglet April 20, 2011, 2:54 pm

I think you should tell them, for all the reasons earlier commenters have given.I also think you are an amazingly thoughtful and unselfish person to be considering others so much. If part of this is because you can’t cope with their reactions, then tell them honestly that they will have to be brave in front of you, -they will have each other to lean on. If your outcome is good, they will be able to feel they helped you. Hope all goes well for you.

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