Is Keeping Cancer a Secret a Big Mistake?

keeping secrets about cancerby Lisa Adams

I met a woman who told me something shocking.
It wasn’t that she’d had breast cancer.
Or had a double mastectomy with the TRAM flap procedure for reconstruction.
Or that she’d had chemotherapy.

What made my jaw literally drop open was her statement that she has never told the younger two of her four children that she’s had cancer.


Not when she was diagnosed.
Or recovering from any of her surgeries.
Or undergoing chemotherapy.

She never told them.
To this day– five years later– they do not know.

I like to think I’m pretty open-minded. But I confess, it took a lot of self-control not to blurt out, “I think that is a big mistake.”

I’m a big believer in being open and honest with your children about having cancer. My caveat, using common sense, is that you should only give them age-appropriate information.

“What made my jaw literally drop open was her statement that she has never told the younger two of her four children that she’s had cancer.”

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, Tristan was six months-old. Of course he didn’t understand what cancer was. Colin, age 5 at the time, understood some of what was happening. I explained to him what cancer meant, that I was going to need surgery to take the cancer out, where the cancer was, what chemo was, what it would do to my appearance and energy level. Using words like “I will be more tired than I usually am. I might feel sick to my stomach and need to rest more” explained things in words he could understand.

Age 8 and the oldest at the time, Paige understood the most when I was diagnosed. She had bigger questions and well as concerns about me (“Will I get it too? Who is going to take care of us? Are you going to be okay?”).

It’s not that I think small children always understand everything. But they are certainly able to sense that things are not “normal.” They can tell when people are acting strange. I think it’s important that they know there is a reason for that change. Children have a tendency to be egocentric; they think that everything is their fault. They may think they have done something wrong if everything at home feels different.

The woman told me she didn’t want to worry her children. She thought it “unnecessary” to tell them. She said when they got older she would explain it. I argue that by keeping her cancer a secret, she runs the risk of doing the opposite: making cancer seem scarier and more worrisome.

If children hear words like “cancer” casually in conversation as they grow up, they will be comfortable with them; in that way, they won’t be frightened of them. If they understand the truth of the diagnosis and treatment they are dealing with reality. By hiding the truth, the unintended consequence is to make it seem worse than it is. By not telling children, and waiting until they are older, it reinforces the idea that cancer IS something “big and scary.” After all, if it weren’t, you would have told them already.

I think being secretive is a step backward to the days when cancer was only talked about in hushed tones: the “C” word or “a long illness.” These concepts might seem primitive to us now, but it wasn’t long ago that these vague labels were the norm. By showing our children, our friends, our neighbors, that we can livewith cancer, live after cancer, we put cancer in its rightful place.

To me, the deception that goes on to lie to children about where you are going, what you are doing is lying about a fundamental part of your life. Cancer isn’t all I am — but it is a part. And it’s an important part of my medical history. If for the past 3 years I’d covered up where I was going and what I was doing, the web of deceit would have been extensive. I can’t (and won’t) live a life like that.

Further, I think it’s a poor example to set for my children.

covering up information,
and omitting important information are all wrong.

With rare exception, the truth is always best.

Presented in the proper way,
commensurate with a child’s age,
a difficult situation can be not only tolerable but surmountable.

It takes work. It takes parents who can manage not only their own emotions about having cancer but also be involved with helping their children cope with it. It’s more work, but it’s worth it.

I think that woman made a mistake. I think her decision was harmful. I am sure she thinks she was doing her children a favor. I totally disagree. I think keeping this type of information from children “in their own best interest” is rarely– if ever– the right thing to do.

Lisa B AdamsLisa’s blog, , includes essays about life-changing events including a cancer diagnosis, the sudden death of a family member, and having a child with medical challenges. She combines medical, psychological, and sociological viewpoints to these and other topics. A breast cancer survivor, she currently lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children.

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4 Responses

  1. Chris Coutts
    Chris Coutts July 11, 2011 at 10:41 pm | | Reply

    Nicely said Lisa. My 16 year old daughter had brian cancer at two and again at four and although our situation is a bit different then yours we have always felt that honesty was best. Of course we would limit it to her understanding. Here we are 12 years out in remission and although she understands how serious the matter is….she offers hope to others and is a great role model. Cancer does not have to be the big silent “c”… our house it is part of our vocabulary and we are not afraid to use it. I have three daughters and they have helped raise many of thousands of dollars to help others. We have tried our best to turn this word into something positive.

    I will keep you in our thoughts and prayers and we wish you many, many years of happiness and good health.


  2. sue glader
    sue glader July 13, 2011 at 10:16 pm | | Reply

    I’m struck by how she told the older two, but not the younger two. That means that the older two were asked to keep a secret from their siblings, which is not exactly the kind of message I think is smart for intra-sibling relationships. Or any relationships, actually.

    Walk a mile in my shoes, most people say. And I’m sure this mom thought she was doing right by her kids (all of them) and herself. I agree with all the points that Lisa makes, especially that a huge life lesson that we can give our kids is that bad things do happen, life gets tough sometimes, but that we work together to get through such times. That’s a fact.

    I think many mothers avoid this whole conversation because it is just too painful. Too big. It’s been served up to them as terrifying. They are overwhelmed in the moment. It’s hard to breathe, let alone have the wherewithall to tackle one of life’s hardest conversations. (Been there, so I know …)

    It’s why I chose to write a children’s book that could do the heavy lifting for overwhelmed moms, aunties, grandmothers, teachers. That could give them the words to start the discussion, and couch it in a way that can be digested. It’s called Nowhere Hair, and it has helped more than 2,000 families in the last year to cope. If you’re reading this, perhaps it can help you. sue

  3. car???
    car??? April 23, 2015 at 10:03 pm | | Reply

    today i found out my mom was keeping a life changing secret from me
    she was having a surgery.
    im 12, it shocked me
    i don’t know what kind of surgery or the dangers but I’m so scared

    Please help me!
    All my brothers know and I’m too afraid to bring it up
    i was trying t find more out so i read my parents text and she said she might tell me tomorrow
    i gaurentee im gonna cry im so scared
    she has to miss my play for “a reason”
    and she says she can’t reschedule

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