For cancer, January 2016 has been an unusual month. This January, cancer has managed to take the lives of three world renowned entertainers; David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Terry Wogan.
Examining their deaths, we see that they all were marked with great outpourings of grief from their loved ones, colleagues and their fans. But they also tell us a sad story about their concerns for their privacy and how they dealt with their cancer.
None of these men ever announced their cancer diagnoses publicly. They all seemed to have only told their closest friends and family members.
When Michael Douglas announced that he had throat cancer he very carefully failed to disclose the potentially disfiguring tongue cancer diagnoses he had also received. High profile individuals are always very careful about what the media and their fans know, but this hesitation to share concerns about a cancer diagnosis reaches not only these high profile individuals, it seems to be widespread and effect even the everyday person.
What makes this even more surprising is that we live in a new, privacy be dammed world, an internet world where people are constantly “checking in,” displaying pictures of their food at a restaurant and “Facebooking” their plans to go to where ever. Yet, people are so secretive about their cancer diagnosis.
Why is this? I am going to guess that for many individuals being diagnosed with cancer is still perceived as a death sentence. Survival rates are much better, but the general person is still scared stiff if they are told they have cancer. Even mentioning the word cancer remains taboo for many individuals!
Part of the problem is because cancer often attacks an intimate body part, like a breast, a prostate, a penis, or the anus. Generally, these types of body parts are not usually a topic of general and public conversation. So, talking about cancer of these body parts is often frowned upon.
These taboos are not just seen in small, ethnic groups, but are pervasive through out most societies. Taboos about mentioning cancer leads to our failure to openly share our experiences which then ends up hurting everyone in society. Our failure to discuss our cancer, even if it means admitting that we are incontinent or are unable to have an erection means that our cancer is hidden. The cost of our hiding our cancer is that others will not recognize when they have symptoms and might not catch their cancer as early as they might otherwise. This increases pain, suffering and death. It also means that we often don’t ask for help when we need it.
Coping with a cancer diagnosis is as hard as coping with the treatments. But, we know that we must move forward with treatment if we want to extend our life, but we also must find ways to cope with the concept of the diagnosis as well. This means being honest with our selves, our families, our friends and with our fans.
Having cancer is an illness, nothing more. Yes, it can be a serious illness, but it is still an illness. There is no correct, or better way to deal with a cancer diagnosis, but there is no shame in it either.
I knew a really sweet woman, diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, who had three young children. She refused to share her diagnosis with her family, her friends and even with her children’s school administration. The three children floundered for years, prohibited from telling anyone that Mommy was sick. She passed away ten years ago and these three children have had not only to cope with the loss of their mother, but they all bear major developmental scares because they were taught to deceive good people and not ask for help, even when it was needed.
The time has come to break the chains of this ridiculous taboo. We need to shout it from the mountain so that we get the help and the research dollars we need.
Here is my shout:
I HAVE FIVE CANCERS.
I HAVE THYROID CANCER
I HAVE ADVANCED PROSTATE CANCER
I HAVE KIDNEY CANCER
I HAVE MELANOMA
I HAVE APPENDICEAL CANCER
— I MIGHT HAVE ANOTHER CANCER I AM WAITING TO HEAR FROM THE PATHOLOGIST