To Tell or Not to Tell

“What is this, some kind of parenting thing?" This, the response from my 35-year-old daughter when I informed her that three weeks earlier my urologist had told me there was a good chance I had cancer of the right kidney and he might have to remove the entire organ. I hadn’t told either of my daughters about my concerns until I had received a clean bill of health from a radiologist. The response I got from them led me into considerable reflection about informing loved ones of serious problems with which one has to cope.

We all have these considerations sometime in our lives; some are easier to confront than others. In our society we now talk more openly about organ donation after death, burial/cremation preferences, will preparation, euthanasia, etc. But we still don’t think enough about how much of our worries we should share, with whom to share them, how, when, etc. The problem I had dealt with was much more subtle and unpredictable and required a separate set of rules that I had to make up without notice and under stress.

A complication from four-year-old prostate surgery led me to my urologist, who recommended an ultrasound of my kidneys. This led to the discovery of a very suspicious, irregular cyst the radiologist thought to be malignant. He told me the next step was a CT scan. I made the appointment for three weeks later.

My first reaction was panic, as I thought of all the possibly terrible alternatives I might have to deal with: cancer; had it spread, major surgery; etc. I soon realized that panic wouldn’t solve anything, and I turned to meditation and alternative medicine in an effort to heal myself. I needed help for my kidney and for my emotions.

My wife and I meditated and visualized the cyst shrinking and breaking up. I had several reflexology treatments with special attention given to the points on my feet that had meridians leading to the kidneys. My friends in England who conduct healing prayer circles included me and read my name aloud in two sessions a week. I had several long-distance telephone healing/meditation sessions of over an hour with my cousin, who practiced two-point magnetic healing. (We went into a deep meditation, and she "scanned" my body to find problem areas and relied on God to remove the negative energy.)

Did all of this work? I’ll never know. The CT scan left no doubt that the cyst was benign. It could have been benign all along, or "my team" of healers might have changed its status. In any case, when I got the news from the radiologist I wanted to kiss him, but having only met him once I came to a quick decision that he would not have appreciated this spontaneous show of affection! I walked out of the medical building with tears of joy and the proverbial weight of the world suddenly removed from my shoulders. I couldn’t wait to return home and share the news with my family and close friends.

My friends whom I had previously involved were ecstatic. My family members who had not heard about my problem were happy but hurt. I was surprised and dismayed by their response. The reason I had withheld this information was basically to protect them from worrying about me. It was bad enough that my wife and I had to wrestle with the attendant problems; why should I burden my family? Soon enough I could tell them the story with its actual ending.

There was another important reason for telling as few people as possible. As part of my basic faith I feel that by speaking about negative issues to others, by broadcasting bad news, one gives a reality to the issue. By holding it close I can contain it. I don’t want a network of friends and others to be thinking about me and associating me with a disease. If I feel they can help in the healing process, by all means they will hear from me. I want all the help I can get. But if I think it will result in hand-wringing and imagining me in a negative way, I’d like to avoid it. I don’t want to give an illness "legs" by disseminating information about it. I believe that our thoughts create our reality. I want my reality to be thought of as being naturally healthy.

My daughters understood my point of view, but they gently reprimanded me for trying to protect them from worrying. They feel that we’re family. We love each other and share everything. They feel part of me and want to be included in all aspects of my life. My elder daughter said, "I want the opportunity to worry with you. It makes me feel connected." She also is working on not worrying about things that may not be real. It’s good practice to train herself not to worry needlessly.

My daughters made other telling points. These kinds of topics give them an opportunity to think about their relationship with me and their own feelings about illness and death. They consequently learn more about living. They also feel closer to me when I can feel able to share very personal issues. Finally, if I were to give them unanticipated bad news it would be a shock if they hadn’t been prepared. If I had shared each step they would have emotional space and time to accustom themselves to the circumstances and their possible consequences.

Having discussed the subject candidly with my daughters, I now have a clearer focus for future situations. I’m in no position to give anyone advice—only to relate my own experience in the hope of raising an important issue. I have learned that it is very worthwhile to think about potential problems before they happen and to discuss with loved ones their attitudes and feelings. I don’t think one can know exactly how to handle each and every situation before it develops, but I do believe that general ground rules can be agreed upon. It’s important to know the depth of feeling one’s family members have on these issues. I believe that waiting for serious illness or death to occur before finding out how our loved ones feel is waiting too long. I’m fortunate that the cyst was benign and I had the added benefit of developing an even closer relationship with my family. If a similar condition occurs in the future, I know I will handle it differently.

Henry Stark

Reprinted with permission from Towards Wholeness (Journal of the Friends Fellowship of Healing), Summer 2001. Henry Stark, a resident of Kendal at Ithaca, N.Y., has contributed several articles to Towards Wholeness and has recently written a book, Sierra Story: Yosemite Adventures and Reflections.