Published Sep 19, 2021
Battling cancer is an extremely personal experience, and so is choosing who to tell about your diagnosis. For some people, it’s a no-brainer to share their struggle and absorb as much support as possible, while for others, sharing the news doesn’t come so easy.
In recent months and weeks, there has been a growing number of celebrities who have come forward to say they’ve secretly battled cancer in the past, and some who have even died from cancer that no one knew they had. Most recently, beloved comedian Norm Macdonald died from cancer at 61; he battled the disease in private for nine years.
This prompted an important question: Why do some people share their cancer battles, privately with loved ones or publicly on social media, while others don’t tell anyone at all?
The answer is complex and multi-layered.
In a recent interview, Ron Wood, guitarist for The Rolling Stones, spoke about his two bouts with lung cancer and why he didn’t share the news publicly.
“Lots of people say to me, ‘You didn’t tell me. I would have helped you,’ and I’d say, ‘I didn’t want to bother anyone. I just wanted to handle this on my own and come through it on my own’ — and with the great help of (my wife) Sally, she’s been wonderful,” Wood says.
“I recommend sharing, I’m a therapist,” Strongin says with a laugh, “but to whom and how many people is up to the person (with cancer).”
Since the emergence of social media, those who are comfortable with sharing personal information tend to find comfort in sharing with their online support system.
Just as there are people who don’t tell anyone about their cancer battle, there are people who share nearly every update. Comedian Kathy Griffin, 60, has extensively shared her stage 1 lung cancer diagnosis on social media. She first announced her diagnosis in August and has posted regular status updates on her condition since. Miranda McKeon, the 19-year-old actress best known for her role in the television series Anne With an E, was diagnosed with breast cancer in June and has shared in-depth updates about her condition on Instagram as she goes through treatment.
While some choose to share their news in real time, there are some who share their news, but not until later. Most recently, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota revealed Sept. 9 that she was diagnosed with breast cancer in February and that her treatment “went well.” She wrote about her experience in a public Medium blog post.
There’s also Lindy Thackston, an anchor for FOX 59 News in Indianapolis, who was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer in May 2020 and chronicled her progress on social media as well. She’s now facing a possible second cancer battle, which she’s also shared online.
Strongin says that what she’s noticed is that a lot of people find comfort and support in sharing, “and I mean every part of their journey.”
From a psychological stance, “the more that we share, the less likely we are to feel shame, and shame is quite toxic; it makes us feel alone and it makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us,” she says. “In that instance, it’s better to share; sharing is more connecting.”
Like Wood, there are plenty of people who have chosen not to share their cancer battle publicly. While Strongin says that she encourages sharing, she also recognizes there’s also a personality factor at play when it comes to whether a person shares this deeply personal news; some people are more willing to share, and some are just more private, Strongin adds. The difference, she says, is what’s the process in sharing versus not sharing.
Iconic actor Stanley Tucci, 60, shared for the very first time this year that he battled cancer three years ago when a tumor was found on his tongue. People like actress Kelly Preston, who was married to actor John Travolta, kept her cancer battle a secret as well; she died of breast cancer at age 57 last summer. Like Macdonald, Preston’s death was a surprise to many as her cancer diagnosis was widely unknown to the public. Then there’s actress Helen McCroy, wife to actor Damien Lewis, who died in April at age 52 after a private battle with cancer, and Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman died at 43 after a private, four-year battle with colon cancer.
Strongin mentions one of her patients who has explored the reasons why she didn’t tell people about her cancer diagnosis. For the patient, Strongin says, “it was coming to terms with the identity of being sick.”
“Being sick is something she never wanted — something she never wanted to acknowledge to herself,” Strongin adds. “It was safer to temporarily do that (identify as sick) for herself,” but the long-term impacts of telling others the same thing were unknown, which can be a scary thought.
“I think there are some people who can digest that information (of being sick) and move very quickly into treatment and how they’re gonna battle it, and they want support,” Strongin says. “There are some who have a harder time digesting that information and letting it be a part of being who they are. Sharing it for those people is making it (their illness) more real.”
Fighting cancer is extremely personal, and there’s no right way to accept your diagnosis. There’s no handbook, there’s no wrong way, either. But regardless of what you decide, “everyone should focus on what makes them feel good,” Strongin says.
“There’s a difference between telling people ‘I’m sick’ versus ‘I was sick, and I think a lot of people want to wait for that moment,” Strongin says.
But the caveat in these situations, she says, is that you want to make sure sharing, if you choose to, provides you with support; a strong support system is fundamental when it comes to battling cancer.
“If it creates anxiety and burden and worry, that’s something to look at,” Strongin says. Added anxiety and worry during a cancer battle is the last thing you need. So do what makes you feel good; it’s your journey and only you know the right way to navigate through it.