Recently, I found a lump that was diagnosed as breast cancer. It is Stage IA, with a high chance of cure, but of course, more information might change that sooner or later. I have entered the uncertain world of being a patient – before this, as a physician myself, I happily avoided seeing the doctor.
While my cancer should be curable, and this will just be a “blip” in my life (as one doctor said out of kindness, in an attempt to put things in perspective), I foresee being a serious patient for the next couple of months, with a major surgery scheduled in the next few weeks, radiation treatment, chemotherapy, and then a menopause-inducing medication that will likely be a forever drug for me.
It may seem wrong to share this while remaining anonymous; like many others, I am in awe of Jennifer Aniston’s courage in sharing her infertility journey. I do want patients and doctors to go boldly forth and remove the shroud of silence that often seems to conceal difficult medical news. Strictly speaking for me, I strongly believe there is a benefit from sharing having cancer (or any other medical journey, like infertility or depression). I am not ashamed to put my name on this, and I want to remain anonymous to set a boundary. Each person has the right to dictate the parameters of what is shared and not shared around medical news and other difficult life events like divorce, unemployment, and abuse.
Right now, I remain anonymous because while I have shared my news at work and in my closer family circle, the problem for me is my wider family circle, particularly in-laws, who remain incapable of respecting boundaries. I don’t feel safe sharing this with those who live far from me and hopefully will never know this news (since there is a high chance of a cure). It is an active choice for me to stay anonymous right now. Courage does not always mean speaking out; sometimes silence is also brave.
I also do not have the time or opportunity to share my news, personally, one to one, with everyone that I might want to. And I believe that this is also true for most – if I haven’t shared directly with you, that does not necessarily mean that I don’t trust you, that I don’t want you to know, that I don’t feel safe with you. I want my news to spread responsibly among my work colleagues and social circles without telling everyone because sometimes I don’t want to repeat myself. And personally, even during this acute time of diagnosis and planning, I don’t always want to receive the deep empathy of others. Sometimes I am focused on what needs to get done in the day, just as before my diagnosis. It is not an avoidance of the situation – it is human adaptation – what used to feel abnormal is quickly becoming normal to me – what was news to me is no longer a front-page headline in my mind.
Everyone deals with this question of what to share, how to share, and when to share, with smaller and bigger things, with different circles of people, in different seasons of life. Each of us should be afforded the right to choose silence, speak out, or do anything in between.
My experience is not going to exactly replicate anyone else’s. We each have the right to tell uncomfortable stories in our own way; what I need is the willingness of others to listen and ask, “Do you want to tell me more?” And at this moment, I appreciate this shared, safe space.
The author is an anonymous physician.