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Why some might keep their cancer a secret

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Nesbitt_Photo/Flickr and Kaylyn Izzo
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There are a number of diseases known to man that are incurable, some more serious than others. But if you had a serious incurable disease, would you want everyone around you to know? Or would you want to keep it to yourself?

These are questions many of us don’t have to think about, but for someone diagnosed with cancer, it may be something they put some serious thought into. This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Mindy Greenstein discusses some of the problems cancer can cause “from both sides of the hospital bed.” Greenstein is a clinical psychologist and author, a consultant in the department of psychiatry at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and is a cancer survivor herself.

Greenstein says there are many factors that go into someone choosing to reveal their diagnosis or not. Part of it can be a cancer patient’s desire to keep a cancer-free zone; a place where they can take their mind off the disease.

“Often cancer is experienced as a communal act,” Greenstein said. “When one person gets cancer, other people get freaked out.”

This can put a lot of pressure on a cancer patient, because they have to figure out not only how they are going to cope with the disease, but how the people around them are as well, Greenstein says.

Another big factor that can affect how a person deals with cancer is if their survival expectancy is long-term or not.

“People are almost as afraid of the treatment as they are of the illness. But if they think of it as a containable illness, they can cope more easily, and I’m including friends and family members in this too,” Greenstein said.

Although people with an incurable illness, like cancer, may even live longer than someone with a curable illness, like sickle cell disease where treatment can be difficult, people tend to look at a cancer patient differently, according to Greenstein.

“If [patients] have an illness that’s potentially curable, people may actually treat it like it’s not that big of a deal,” Greenstein said. “If there’s no cure, people may fear that their friends are looking at them as someone that’s going to die, and sometimes that’s true, that their friends will not be able to keep that out of the picture.”

Although some cancer patients may not want the burden of feeling this way, Greenstein says it is still important to tell some people when you have the disease. When cancer is kept as a secret, it closes the doors to help and support that you might otherwise receive.

Greenstein, for example, found an ally in another mom because of an accidental outing of her disease by her young son. A form of support she would have never discovered if it had been kept a secret.

“Our social support system can be the most valuable part of the coping process, so there’s sort of a balance to be had there,” Greenstein said.

A balance is also required in telling those in your support circle what helps you, and what makes things more difficult for you.

“If others are freaked out, it freaks us out. If they view us as sick, and treat us like a sick person, that may not feel very good for us,” Greenstein said.  

However, Greenstein also says that how a person treats you when you have cancer can also reflect on the way you treat yourself. Through her own experience, Greenstein found that many people, like her son’s friends’ parents, didn’t so much view her as sick, but more as a person that was just dealing with a difficulty in their life.