April 20, 2023

Cancer Disclosure, Privacy, and the Grapevine


I write, talk, and debate a lot about when as young adult cancer survivors we should reveal our illness to a date.  But what happens when we don’t even get to tell someone about our cancer because the grapevine beat us to it?

When I lived in San Francisco, some friends joked that I was The Dancer with Cancer.  It was news on the street among my extended social circle, and often I didn’t mind because many people who heard offered me help that I really needed: rides to doctors appointments, help with laundry.

There is a power to being about to decide to whom and when we reveal our illness, especially when it comes to dating.  Take  Sheila in Everything Changes who was extremely private - not even  disclosing cancer to her close friends.   On the other hand, Dana, also in my book, was relieved that when she and her husband began dating, he already knew that she had cancer.

In today’s New York Times Well Blog, Tara Parker-Pope interviews Trisha Meili, the Central Park jogger, who 20 years ago today was raped and brutally attached at age 28, resulting in brain injury.

“I met my husband on a blind date in 1995. A woman I had gone to college with knew him. I told her, ‘do me a favor, don’t tell him my history. That’s my story and I want to be able to tell it if I want to.’ In talking to him before we met, I had told him I went to Yale business school and the school of management. He mentioned it to a friend who had also attended Yale. She said, ‘You know who that is, don’t you?’ And she told him. In the end, it didn’t matter, but there was a little bit of that feeling, ‘Hey, that’s my story.’ The media keeping my anonymity is something that I do appreciate. I was known as the Central Park jogger, and when I told my story it was my choice. That was a degree of control that I had completely lost with the attack and the rape. When I’d meet someone it’s not like I would say, ‘Hi, I’m the Central Park jogger.’ It’s kind of a conversation stopper.”

Have you ever had someone find out about your cancer or another illness without you telling them?  Were you glad that they already knew, or would you have rather told them yourself?  In your circle of friends, among co-workers, in your family, did your cancer news spread like wildfire? Did you have a control valve that let you determine who knew?  If you could go back, would you do anything differently about disclosing your cancer?

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  1. Cathy Bueti Says:
    April 20th, 2009 at 11:56 AM

    I also have struggled with disclosure issues with respect to dating during my cancer. In regards to this specific issue I had an ex find out through someone at my job that I had cancer. We hadn’t spoken in months. One nite he shows up on my doorstep to my shock and dismay telling me he heard about what happened and asked why I hadn’t called him to let him know. What?! Maybe because we ended on non speaking terms. So he expresses his concern while he moves in closer to me, leads me to the couch (at this point I am wondering why I even let him in the door) and puts his arm around me. As I look at him with this WTF look on my face he took my hand and placed it casually between his legs.
    I couldn’t help but wonder if he stopped by because he was really concerned or because he figured that the poor cancer girl would be easy to get in bed and be ready for a booty call!
    So in this case I was mad that my cancer news got out to this particular guy. I wondered what that person was thinking when she revealed my illness to him. It certainly left me feeling powerless.

  2. Kate Says:
    April 20th, 2009 at 12:08 PM

    Okay, I’ve not had this issue but I had to commend you for using an image from Bye Bye Birdie!!!

  3. anonymous Says:
    April 20th, 2009 at 7:21 PM

    Cathy’s anecdote (“I couldn’t help but wonder if he stopped by because he was really concerned or because he figured that the poor cancer girl would be easy to get in bed and be ready for a booty call!”) resonates strongly for me. I’m a woman in her mid-40s and single. I discovered that my cancer seems to elicit male attention from “knights in shining armor” who are otherwise ill-equipped or unavailable for relationships. My choice, consistently: sure, I’ll take that booty call! Poor cancer girl can take advantage, too. These are momentary satisfactions, certainly, and-while I look forward to building a deeper relationship with a man who’ll stay in my life, whatever my health circumstance-I happily accept the short-term warmth and comfort and affirmation of my sexuality that these booty boys offer. In self-pity mode, I think to myself “oh poor lonely me, who’ll now as a survivor always be considered damaged goods.” In healthy-thoughts mode, I think to myself “uh huh, flip me over and do it again before you rush out the door.”

  4. Kelly Kane Says:
    April 20th, 2009 at 8:59 PM

    Great post, Kairol. I kinda wished me having cancer got me laid like your anon poster :)

    I think most people found out I had cancer from me, or family and friends. I didn’t really mind who knew, and for the most part I still don’t mind. I even have my blog on my resume which some people think is a big no-no. It being out and the open is comforting. It’s a big part of my life.

    Also, sometimes when I told people I had cancer, it was kinda fun to watch their reactions. I’m a weirdo. I went to a pseudo high school reunion a few weeks ago and although I hadn’t seen most of the people in nearly 10 years, they all knew! So I didn’t get to get a reaction outta anyone… other than a creepy exboyfriend staring at my boobs.

    No knights in shining armor either. I had a few promises that weren’t lived up to, and some flowers sent by an anon sender that refused to declare who they were. But that’s about it.

    Oh and as for dating. The last guy I seriously dated, well the only guy I’ve dated since cancer, actually worked in cancer hospitals with radiation oncology software. It was a perfect match. He told me about his job and I said, “Funny story, I had cancer” and it was out in the open, that easy. I think sometimes it freaks people out to hear about cancer, and even when I think about myself, I’m not sure that I’d want to date someone that had cancer. Not because I think they’re weird, or anything like that, just because I’d like to have kids someday and I figure 2 occurances of cancer is worse than one when making a baby. Doesn’t give it much of a fighting chance. Of course, I would make exceptions for the perfect person, but I don’t think you’ll see me on any cancer dating sites (they’re out there!)


  5. Missy Diggs Says:
    April 21st, 2009 at 8:13 AM

    I have been pretty open about my cancer but it does mean that when I randomly run into a casual acquaintance I can’t always tell if they know… it’s weird. It happened a lot when I was wearing wigs during chemo and would run into someone who knew me years before… they would comment on my hair and because I had my young daughter with me I would feel compelled to say, “It’s a wig. I have cancer.” (Otherwise my daughter would sometimes pull the wig right off my head to reveal the truth!)
    Now that I am almost two years into treatment, I find that it is refreshing to meet people who don’t know or who don’t relate to me as a “cancer patient.” I am taking a creativity workshop and even though I revealed that I am in treatment, it is not an issue and I really enjoy just being “myself” there.

  6. Nathania Johnson Says:
    April 21st, 2009 at 8:33 AM

    Actually, my cancer news did not spread like wildfire and it made me wonder if I had the crappiest friends in the world. Answer? Probably, yeah.

    So then I let people know b/c I didn’t want to be disappointed later if they can’t handle it. It was almost a litmus test, though it wasn’t perfect.

    I tell potential employers on interviews. I want it to be understood from the beginning. If they’re not willing to be flexible during the 2-4 weeks I need to go through for testing, believe me I don’t want to work for them. (Not so much a problem anymore since I write freelance from home.)

    I don’t have much of a need to tell people anymore. My scar is barely noticeable and it doesn’t really interrupt my life anymore.

  7. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    April 21st, 2009 at 9:13 AM

    Dear Anonymous,
    You could not have better described my life when I was first diagnosed - Damaged goods, and flip me over and do it again. You nailed it (and sounds like you had fun getting nailed.) This merits a whole blog post in response to your comment. I’ll post it today or tomorrow.
    Thanks for the fodder.

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