My husband was diagnosed with lung cancer last spring. At the time, it was considered not the worst possible type of cancer and he had a 70% chance of going into remission. He chose not to tell either of his parents (who have been divorced for 45 years) or anyone else on his side of the family.
Most of the reason he made this decision is because when my husband was a plump 15 year old who wanted to lose weight, his father told him that he’d lose weight if he started smoking. And even bought his son 2 cartons of cigarettes a week until he left home at 18. My husband tried many times to quit until he finally managed to quit for good in 2006 (thank you, Chantix). When he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and that it was probably caused by his heavy smoking habit, his father had a dramatic “OMG, OMG what have I done, what have I done” fit and it took months (not joking) of reassurance and absolution from my husband to reassure him.
My husband just doesn’t want to go through that again. He doesn’t want to tell anyone in his family because if he told anyone, word would spread to his father fairly quickly (he has two brothers who still have relationships with both parents).
What makes it more awful is that my father-in-law was physically and verbally abusive to my husband when he was a child and has never said a word about it since. Apparently, it is supposed to be as if none of the beatings, verbal putdowns, etc, ever happened. My husband says he’s given up on getting any admission from his father about just how awful he was as a father to his three young sons. Same with his mother–she witnessed all the abuse but didn’t leave his father until my husband was nearly 18.
Earlier this month, we discovered that my husband didn’t make it into remission. He now has Stage IV cancer with a distant metastasis. The median time for survival is 12 months (half the people with his diagnosis die before 12 months, half die after 12 months). The worst case scenario is 6 months and the best case scenario is 18 months.
My husband has chosen to deal with this by doing all the medical stuff (chemotherapy, labs, follow up scans, etc) and deliberately not thinking about it otherwise. I’ve invited him to talk about it and made it clear that I am willing to respect and support whatever decisions he makes. I know this sounds like denial and heck, for all I know, it may be. All I really know is that it works for him. I am respecting his choice in the matter.
My concern is for my in-laws. We are not at all close (they live over 2200 miles aways) and we’ve seen them once since my husband moved away to live with me 22 years ago. My husband is adamant: no telling. His reasoning is that there is nothing they can do, so learning about it sooner will just add that many more months they will be in pain.
I have read far too many anecdotes from people that go roughly “my beloved person hid their diagnosis of cancer until just before their death/until death and not having a chance to say good bye has increased my pain.” My husband’s retort is that if he gets run over by a bus tomorrow, they wouldn’t have time to say good bye either.
I think that he doesn’t want to endure months of “OMG, what have I done” from his father and demands to be absolved.
Part of me is horrified at the pain my husband’s family will go through without warning, etc, when he dies. Especially since it does not appear that there will be any ‘sooner or later’ because it will be ‘soon or sooner’.
Right now, I’m respecting his boundaries around telling his family. I keep wavering, though, on whether I should continue to do so. My reasoning is that my first loyalty is to my husband rather than a group of people I’ve only met twice in 22 years but some part of me keeps saying that I am being complicit in potentially increasing their pain. I feel like I am playing the part of the torturer’s assistant.
Soon to be Widow
Dear Soon To Be Widow,
I am very sorry for the pain you and your husband are going through right now and I’m glad you wrote to me.
Please let your husband be the boss of how and whether and what he tells his family. I know you feel like you are being complicit in a secret and potentially adding to their eventual pain. I know your husband’s logic about sparing his family a longer period of grief and suffering, doesn’t 100% hold water for you, but you’ve perfectly stated the issue: In addition to undergoing arduous treatments, in addition to facing his own death, your husband does not want to add the burden of doing massive amounts of emotional labor for a man who abused him at this time. He tried to tell his folks already, when he first got sick with congestive heart failure, and his dad made that all about himself. Can you blame him for not wanting to deal with it again? For wanting to feel like he gets to control *something* right now?
I’ve also seen a lot of cases where the whole Cheerfully!-Fighting!-Cancer!-With!-Prayers!-And!-Positive!-Thinking!-Industrial!-Complex! stresses people alllllllllllllllll the way out and I can’t ever blame people for getting stuck in that paradoxical place of wanting support and for friends to know what’s going on with them but not having the energy to put on the brave “I’m a CANCER WARRIOR!!!!!” face or fielding the awkward “How…ARE you?” questions all day every day. Or, jeez, feeling like every interaction with someone Might Be The Very Last Time, So Make It Count. It’s A LOT, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to feel like they have some control over how & where the news goes.
Your husband has seen all the same cultural artifacts and messages about deathbed confessions and tearful reunions and forgiveness and faaaaaamily as you and he’s choosing to let distant family relationships remain what they are: Distant. There are reasons for the distance, and those reasons aren’t on you to fix.
When he dies no doubt these people will somehow blame you for not telling them sooner. They too have seen those movies and TV shows and doubtless had the fantasy all human beings do that ‘someday’ everything will somehow be made right and a single, perfect tear will slide down everybody’s face to mark the occasion. (It’s okay that they have that fantasy. I have that fantasy about certain difficult relationships in my life, too, and you may have seen a little trilogy called Star Wars episodes IV, V, and VI?) So yes, they might blame you for ruining their fantasy of ‘making peace with it all’ or ‘saying goodbye,’ and you can tell them the truth: “He asked me not to tell you and it was important to him to not spend the little time he had left with everybody fussing over him, so I supported him in that choice even when I didn’t agree with it. I’m very sorry for the pain you’re going through now. I miss him, too.”
Pain is coming for all of you. Your husband can’t actually control when and how much, and neither can you, and I’m so very sorry for that. I don’t think it’s okay for you to contact his family without his permission, but I do think it’s okay for you to say to him, once, “Hey, love, that’s actually bullshit, and while I won’t go behind your back, I think you should definitely tell your brothers what’s going on with you,” or, “I want to support you any way I can, but this is a hard request for me because it means I’m all alone here with this secret.” It’s not okay to constantly bring this up or bug him or pressure him about it, but it is okay to respond to his requests truthfully with how you’re feeling.
I’m reading a lot of grief and also a lot of loneliness in your letter. Your husband’s decision to go all stoic might be working for him, but it’s not working for you to never be able to talk about this with anyone, and it’s okay to want someone else to be in on the whole story. Please, if you haven’t already, find a support group and/or individual counseling for yourself, somewhere you can let all the messy feelings out with people who don’t need the backstory and who are flinching away from the “How…ARE you?” conversations in their own lives. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell the people who are close to you who can support you and fuss over you and bring you casseroles and scream the world down with you.
Comments closed 2/1/17.