Is it fair to hide a cancer diagnosis from a spouse to avoid feelings of pity?

2 answers | Last updated: Nov 08, 2010
A fellow caregiver asked...

is it fair for a spouse, who is diagnosed with cancer, to withhold it from you to spare feeling of pity?

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...


This is a great question. (I'm revising my initial answer because it sounded way too mean.) We've probably all been on both sides of this debate. It's hard to ask for and receive help.


Full disclosure: I have had two family members keep their cancer diagnosis from me.

I want to start by changing a couple of your premises:
1. I don't think fairness matters one iota here. Let's shoot for: will I get the best outcome for me and my spouse?
2. I can imagine a bunch of good reasons for keeping things from one particular person, so can we substitute 'loved ones' for spouse.

Also, I'm going to break your question into two more specific questions. I'm not sure which one you're asking:
1. Do I have the right to be angry at my spouse for hiding his/her cancer diagnosis?
2. Should I keep my cancer diagnosis from my spouse?

Finally, answers:
If it's question 1, then probably NOT.
If it's question 2, I shouldn't think so.

Long answers:

1. Don't dwell on what your spouse did wrong. They have cancer. Help them. (Yes, you probably should gather a close friend or two and complain for one night. Or, take yourself on a nice walk to the top of a mountain.) But, come back and get to the business of supporting them.

2. I offer these reasons NOT to hide the diagnosis:
- It probably won't work. At some level, they'll know something's up.
- It's better for you to tell them.There's a bunch of science on this at this point. It's not just touchy-feely self-help mumbo-jumbo. Cancer patients with strong support networks have better outcomes.
- It's better for your loved ones. There may be some small part of them that looks at you and worries for themself (I wouldn't call it pity), but, mostly, we all really want the chance to help. It makes us feel useful. It shows us our humanity (or, if you're religiously inclined, grace). Please, give your loved ones a chance to help you. I've rubbed bald heads; I've felt mastectomy scars. I didn't feel pity. I felt the bravery of the person and my love for them.


Beatbreastcancer answered...

The previous answer is detailed and thoughtful. I'd just like to add a few points. First, getting cancer to begin with isn't "fair"; I know, I'm 48 and 1+ year breast cancer-free. When you first get a diagnosis, your brain freezes up and one thought usually pops into your head; what that is depends on the person. My first thought was "I don't want to die." However, I never once thought to keep the knowledge from any of my loved ones, but I really hated the thought of looking into their faces or calling them on the phone and telling them I had cancer. Cancer runs in my dad's family; he and 2 of his brothers died of lung cancer (they smoked like chimneys), and his parents both died of colon cancer. How do you tell those you love such horrible news when you're still trying to deal with it yourself? Pity, if it comes into a mind at all, only usually lasts for a short time; most people want to help. Yes, it is hard to ask for help; I feel like I can't cope myself with whatever it is, and I feel ashamed. However, the previous answer is right--those who care for you want to help, and will if you give them a chance; think of it as a gift or another therapy to help you cope. I can tell you from personal experience that when someone did something to help me, I felt so grateful and well-cared for and loved; I know it helped me fight my fight with cancer.