Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cancer Candor

I know that different people deal with their cancer in different ways. I wrote about this in my post, "My Cancer, Your Cancer" some time ago. I also wrote about my attitude toward cancer and death in "Laughing About Death".

But a blog reader has pointed out something I hadn't thought of. I had told this reader about some friends and family who don't read my blog because they're afraid of bad news or because they just don't want to know the details of my life with cancer for whatever reason.

Her response was that they're "missing so much -- not just from you, but from life. I find that how they react to your cancer news and life in general tends to be the same. People who are afraid of bad news and pain and sorrow are never happy, which is odd but I think it's true."

I had to think about that for a while because it's counter-intuitive. If you avoid bad news and sorrow, wouldn't you be more happy, not less? But I think this blog reader is right. I think life exists in contrasts and you can't really experience happiness without ever having felt sorrow. And avoiding bad news and pain inevitably means you avoid choices and risks that can lead to some of the best moments in life.

I know some people don't even tell their friends or family they have cancer. That's a pretty big thing to keep to yourself. If you can't trust the people closest to you with such knowledge about you, what good are they to you? And if they can't trust you to share your fear, pain, and sorrow with them, what good are you to them?

There are lies we tell and truths we keep to ourselves to spare the feelings of those we want to protect. But the more I think about it, the more I think that dying is one thing that you don't lie about to the people you genuinely trust and care about. If you can't be honest about your feelings as you're facing death, if you have to make stuff up while lying on your deathbed, then you're truly dying alone, no matter how many people you have at your bedside with words of support and bouquets of flowers.


Grace said...

Hi Shin
my question is not related to any of your posts, just curious who is taking care of your kids like preparing meals, bathing or sending them to school? do you have a maid to help you?

Anonymous said...

I totally feel like I could hire you as my therapist. I feel that I'm dying alone. My mother is so cold when it comes to my cancer. She only talks about growing old with my kids around her and when am I going to call hospice. She's really a cold hearted person. I was in the hospital and she didn;t even bring me clean under clothes or a change of clothes. Did I mention that she's a minister? I believe she wants me to die alone. I pray that I don't. I feel like I'm living a lie with her. She fell asleep when we met with my Onc and was snoring while he was telling me about my progression. She's a coldhearted bitch. I pray that I don't go to hell for disliking her so much. I have breast cancer and my mom is elated that I'll be out of the picture soon. Anyway, you're right... you post was right on mark. God is able, stephanie

danchessari said...

Hi Shin,

Totally agree with your sentiment and again that book I referred to a couple of days ago - when bad things happen to good people really explores this point - hardship makes you stronger and makes you appreciate the good in the world.

My grandfather had bowl cancer and really kept it all to himself under the assumption that he didn't want to bother us about it - what it did in the end though was alienate us and make it more difficult to feel as though we were a part of his life. It became hard for us to interact with him and also for us to understand why certain things were happening given we knew very little about the state of his condition. Your family will not only have an understanding of your condition and what to expect because of how open you are - they will also draw strength as it is hard to see someone you love so sick. Being involved and being informed will help them feel they are part of the process and therefore helping you - well at least thats how I have felt...people who are sick and lock themselves away, whilst I would never judge them, could offer so much more if they didn't. It probably sounds really selfish that I wanted to be more involved with my Grandad - but it wasn't out of morbid curiosity - but out of love and concern.

I hope you are feeling OK today

Stay strong


lw said...

Dear Shin,

We've never met but I'm a friend of a friend of yours (Alicia) and I've been reading your blog for months - in fact, I've been reading it for so long without identifying myself, I feel like I've invaded your privacy during this extraordinary journey. So I decided that today was the day I would say hello and let you know I think about you/read your blog every day; admire your insight, courage and humanity; and wish you every possible moment with your family.

Your post on candor reminds me of a recent McKinsey leadership study in which they say that studies suggest that "optimists see life more realistically than pessimists do, a frame of mind that can be crucial to making the right ... decisions." Also "optimists...are not afraid to frame the world as it actually is - they are confident that they can manage its challenges and move ... quickly to action."

Seems very much like you.


Shin said...

lw (Lisa),

Thanks for reading my blog. Please don't feel like you've invaded my privacy. This blog is far from private now!

This blog started off as a way for me to keep my overseas friends and family updated on my condition, but it's turned into a place for me and my blog readers to learn from each other and laugh with each other. So I'm glad you've joined in.

That McKinsey study sounds interesting. I agree that optimists are more confident and better equipped to manage life's challenges than pessimists are.

I use to say that a cynic is just a disappointed optimist. But a true optimist wouldn't let a disappointment or setback change him. A true optimist would be more confident and stronger than that.

Shin said...


I'm so sad to hear that about your mother and her treatment of you. I have similar thoughts about some people I know.

But I wonder if you should give your mother the benefit of the doubt? Maybe she didn't bring you clean clothes at the hospital because she didn't know you needed them or because she was just oblivious, not because she was mean-spirited or neglectful?

Although I have to say I'm being a bit of a hypocrite here because I've sometimes failed to give certain people the benefit of the doubt, but often, it's after I've done it several times and they've continued to disappoint me.

So I, too, feel like I'm living a lie. On the one hand, they're family and you don't want to hurt their feelings. On the other hand, you don't like lying to them just to spare their feelings. It's a dilemma.

By the way, you won't die alone if you have your God. At least you have that much.

Shin said...


As most families in Singapore do, we have a full-time, live-in helper who does almost all of the housekeeping and cooking.

Because I haven't been very strong lately, our helper has had to take over much of what I used to do with the kids - walking Toby to and from school, going to the playground with them, doing puzzles and playing games with them. She's a kind-hearted, smart lady whom the kids adore, so I'm grateful for her help.

Also, my husband works only part-time now so that he can fill in for me in looking after the children. He's been brilliant at it, teaching them reading, writing, math, tennis, golf, swimming, piano, and even doing art projects with them. Who knew a banker had so much talent?

ward said...

Just re-reading The Snow Leopard and there's a somewhat pertinent section in there. The author is in Inner Dolpo (Nepal), over a couple of very high passes and winter's about to set in. We're talking pretty isolated. There's a gompa ("temple") several hours walk from the nearest village (the inhabitants of which have left the area for the winter). A monk and his novice occupy the gompa. The monk has some form of impairment to his legs which means even hobbling is a (painful) problem. He's been in the gompa for 8 years and his legs have gotten steadily worse. When the author asks him if he's happy/content given the isolation and the fact that he now can't leave... the monk replies, smiling, that everything is perfect ESPECIALLY because he has no choice.


Shin said...


You say that "Your family will not only have an understanding of your condition and what to expect because of how open you are - they will also draw strength as it is hard to see someone you love so sick. Being involved and being informed will help them feel they are part of the process and therefore helping you."

I have a family member who doesn't even read my blog, so knowing a family member has cancer doesn't mean it's going to lead to all of those things you mention.

Shin said...


I don't get it. What does choice have to do with being honest about having cancer? Maybe the brain radiation has really made my brain fuzzy...

ALI KATI said...

I think there's a difference between people who avoid the bad news of others - like those who don't want to know if their friends are sick or dying, in order not to have to face their feelings about that reality - and those who hide the truth of their illness from others because they know what kind of reaction they would get based on the kind of people they know them to be.

When I was sick, and sometime after that, I was very careful about who I told. It is a matter of trust. Sometimes you can love people but you know they can't handle it, or they will handle it in a way that would cause you more pain or trouble, when you've not got much strength left to deal with pain or trouble extra to what you've already got on your plate.

Perhaps that indicates that the relationships aren't as strong or ideal as one might hope to be - but there we have it, not all of us have those relationships.

Shin said...

Ali Kati,

You bring up a very valid point: some people handle the news of your cancer in a way that causes more pain or trouble, at a time when you can't really afford to think about such things.

There are a few people I wish I hadn't told for this very reason. But they'd have been hurt later, when they found out I'd died of cancer. Oh well, too late to go back.

I don't mean to make light of the situation, but click HERE to read an article from "The Onion", a spoof news Web site, that touches on this topic a bit.

ALI KATI said...

Hah, that's a good one. The Onion has some brilliant stuff.

Yes, that's what I meant. Of course, if death was imminent, then I would inform as needs be, because whether they can handle it or not, people need to know that. However, in more intermediate stages, I'd gauge how to put it across.

For example, when I had to go in for surgery. I could have rung up my mother and told her. But I knew she was miles away, and she'd be worried sick as the information I give her over the phone would sound unclear and she'd have a horrific 48 hours wondering how I would pull through an operation. It just seemed the kinder thing to do was to write her a letter instead, clearly stating the facts, and by the time she received the letter, the operation would be over ages ago and I'd probably be out of hospital already. If I were truly honest, I'd also say that made it easier for me too, as I didn't have to worry about her worrying, which added another layer to just getting on with it.