Cancer Patients: Tackling the Privacy Dilemma

As a patient I know that there are laws in place to protect my medical records and the confidential nature of my consultations with my doctor. However, there is much less to protect my privacy in other situations. For example, if information I may not want to become public knowledge comes to be revealed through other individuals who are not part of my medical team. When undergoing cancer treatment, it’s usually necessary for us to share sensitive or highly personal medical information with members of our family, we also may need to share news with our social network or work colleagues. 

I realize now, nine years after my cancer diagnosis, that it was truly up to me what I wanted to say about my medical condition and what I wanted other people to know. There have certainly been times when I should have been more careful with what I revealed or chosen more carefully who I confided in. Much to my chagrin, one matter of etiquette that was breached during my diagnosis and treatment was respect for my privacy as a cancer patient. Of course, I won’t name people specifically, but there were a couple of family acquaintances who took it upon themselves to spread the news of my illness. Please don’t share cancer information unless you know you have permission from the individual. Don’t use telephone calls, emails, social media, newsletters or bulletins to comment about a person without their specific consent. This rule is especially important when it comes to something as intensely personal as one’s health or a cancer diagnosis.

Regrettably, I’ve learned that our society still has misperceptions about chronic illnesses, such as cancer, and that there is still indignity for those of us living with such conditions. This legacy isn’t surprising considering the profound fear, confusion and stigma surrounding cancer for centuries. Until relatively recently the word was hardly spoken in public or said out loud. In 1978 Susan Sontag wrote the classic, and still controversial work, Illness as Metaphor. A breast cancer patient herself when she was authoring the book, Sontag argues that the metaphors and myths surrounding certain illnesses add greatly to the suffering of patients and frequently inhibit them from seeking proper treatment. By demystifying the fantasies surrounding cancer, Sontag strives to show cancer for what it is—just a disease. Cancer, she argues, is not a curse, not a punishment, certainly not an embarrassment, and it is often highly curable if appropriate treatment is followed.

It’s no wonder that some cancer patients still choose to avoid revealing their illness to others. Some don’t want to be viewed differently. They just want to be normal, not defined by the disease. Others may choose to stay silent to protect their privacy and emotional stability. When the news broke that musical legend David Bowie had died at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer, fans around the world expressed not just grief but shock. Despite decades on the world stage, under the glare of a public spotlight, the rock-and-roll icon managed to keep his cancer journey a secret from fans and friends alike, sharing his medical condition only with a handful of people in his inner circle.

It’s one thing to grieve a long life lived and a promise fulfilled. It is quite another to be shaken by a life cut short. Just recently many of us were shocked once again by the news that the actor Chadwick Boseman had died at the age of 43 from colon cancer. Boseman was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2016, and battled with it these last 4 years as it progressed to stage IV. He never spoke publicly about his cancer diagnosis, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, “Only a handful of non-family members knew that Boseman was sick… with varying degrees of knowledge about the severity of his condition.” During treatment, involving multiple surgeries and chemotherapy, he continued to work and completed production for several films, Boseman died at his home as a result of complications related to colon cancer on August 28, 2020, with his wife and family by his side.

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