April 02, 2010

Hiding Cancer from Your Parents?

Kim, a thyroid cancer patient, responded to my last week’s post about tips for handling family during illness:

“I think I might be the only person in the world who hasn’t told her own parents about her cancer diagnosis.  :P  From growing up, I know that my parents, esp my mom, would totally freak out if she ever found out about my thyroid cancer.  She would try to control every last food item that I put in my mouth and would probably try to come live with me (uninvited).  With my work and life, I couldn’t deal with any of that drama during and around my surgery, which was over 3 months ago.  Now, though, I wonder how long I can keep this secret from them.  Any thoughts or advice on breaking this type of news ‘after-the-fact’ would be appreciated!  Or, validation that it’s OK never to tell your own parents?!”

I know from writing my book, Everything Changes, that Kim  is not alone.  I’ve met and written about other people who chose to not tell their parents about cancer and other serious medical conditions, or who denied their parents’ help and presence during treatment.  There are rare circumstances where it may be a smart choice to wait to tell your parents.  If your parent is irrational, you have an extremely stressful relationship, or they have a mental illness that prevents them from being helpful, empathetic, or supportive, going through cancer care without your parents and with an organized set of stable, supportive friends might be the best choice for you.

Kim, I don’t know that there is a right way to tell your parents, but here are a few things that come to mind that could be helpful:  Do it in person if possible;  Don’t do it in public; Ask a stable family member (a cousin or aunt) to be present with you (or if you have to do it over the phone ask them to call your parents after you’ve spoken with them); Bring or send simple, written information to back up good, rehearsed definitions about your disease, your treatment path, and how it impacts your daily life;  Think about how to answer when they ask “Why didn’t you tell me?”  If it’s a good time to dive into the root of your relationship problems, then prepare for how to have that conversation.  Otherwise, prepare strong statements about how and why not telling was the most supportive thing for you.  And acknowledge that you understand why they might feel hurt by your choices; Alert your friends about the conversation so they are there afterwords to give you the love and support you deserve.

I’m curious what words of advice or support other people have for Kim.  Have any of you hidden your cancer from your parents or waited a long time to tell them?

Read more about how other young adult cancer patients handled relationships with their parents in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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March 29, 2010

Tips for Dealing with Family When You’re Sick?

I’m glad to be celebrating Passover with my family and getting a reprieve from thinking about healthcare reform.  Waking up in my parents’ house got me thinking a lot about how much I love them and what it’s like dealing with family in general when you’re sick.

I’m going to brag: I’ve got the most close knit, loving, caring, nuclear and extended family I have ever seen outside of shows like Eight is Enough and the Waltons. Still, cancer put temporary stress on some of my family relationships.  I know scores of other young adult cancer patients who have dealt with family issues like: differing medical values, old feuds and hurt feelings rising to the surface, having someone by your side who loves you but is sometimes just a little too close, or handling completely dysfunctional parents or siblings in the midst of treatment.  Here are a few things that worked for me in navigating cancer and family matters:

1. Express how you are feeling and what you needed. This helps when your relatives are rational people (not everyone’s are!)

2. Don’t express to everyone how you are feeling and what you needed. Some relatives have made asinine comments to me and I let it go. You can pick your friends but not your relatives and I know when it’s futile to spend my limited energy trying to get someone to look outside of their bubble into my world. Emotional walls and superficial conversations are sometimes great devices. And remember, just because a family member offers to help you out doesn’t mean you have to accept it.

3. Arrange for alone time. I was damn grateful for the love and support I had, yet I knew I would go stir crazy without a little time to myself in my tiny studio apartment. If your family is from out of town, ask your friends to take them out to a movie or to dinner so you can get some space.  Chances are your family members need a break too.

4. Bring in outsiders. During my first treatment it was just me and my mom. The second time around we mixed it up with my aunt and dad coming out too.  It was great to have friends stop over to be with all of us and to have my Rabbi drop in too.  There was a lot of nervous energy flying around and we loved an outsider to come and divert our attention.

Has illness impacted your relationships with family members? What tips do you have to add to my list of how to manage family relationships during illness?

Read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s  to learn how and why Seth successfully asked a sibling instead of his parents to come take care of him.

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