When I read Julie Walters’ story, revealing she had been diagnosed with stage three bowel cancer 18 months ago, I empathised.
I understood her decision not to reveal publicly what she was going through. Just like her, when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2016, I kept the news relatively quiet.
When I was told, I was convinced the doctors had mixed up my biopsy results with someone else’s. My wife, Jude, and I decided we didn’t want to tell the world about my condition, and it became a closely guarded secret.
Only a handful of people knew – our two daughters and their partners, one of my two sisters, one friend, my line manager and the company’s HR department – all of whom were sworn to secrecy.
Everyone’s cancer diagnosis is different, and in my case, it was quite a drawn out process, including four months of tests, scans, procedures and consultations before I got answers.
It started in February 2016, with what I thought was an innocuous blood test during my regular two-year health check. In June we got the initial ‘it is cancer’ news. I knew, after four months, that’s what it was probably going to be, but I was still completely devastated.
Eventually I regained composure and blurted out, ‘Is it terminal?’ A question that they didn’t have the answer to yet.
Seven days later I underwent a PET scan and a follow up consultation just 24 hours later, where we heard some good news: ‘The cancer is still in the prostate, but it is potentially curable’. At long last, a tiny, glittering, positive ray of hope.
‘Focus on the project of beating cancer; talk only to the chosen few’ was the strategy Jude and I adopted. Basically, we wanted to remove as much of the emotion as humanly possible and deal pragmatically with the physical condition at hand.
Once I had received my diagnosis, I was signed off work and totally stressed out. I had been given two treatment options, which were deemed urgent. Seven weeks later I underwent a robot-assisted radical prostatectomy.
Over the following 10 weeks I became recluse-like, cocooning myself at home and only going out to visit the gym. With the support of my surgeon and Jude, I rigorously ‘project managed’ getting back in shape.
I was upset, frustrated and quite frankly peeved that on discovering my cancer battle, close friends and family were so angry that they had not been informed.
I was determined to be fitter, healthier and stronger than before the cancer struck. I wanted to regain full continence and, most importantly, overcome my erectile dysfunction – the infamous legacy of the surgery I had.
It was one evening in the gym, seven months later, that I caught sight of how toned I had become. I felt extremely emotional and cried uncontrollably. I was two stone lighter and I was looking and feeling great. I had been very, very lucky.
From that moment I was determined I would ‘come out’ about my cancer diagnosis, subsequent treatment and ongoing recovery.
I knew that whilst I was upon this glorious earth I would raise as much awareness and funds as I possibly could to stop prostate cancer being a killer. So in May 2017 I shared ‘My Prostate Cancer Story’, which I simultaneously posted on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
I continue to be open, brutally frank and completely candid about it – specifically the horrendous impact it had upon my mental health, which came dangerously close to breaking my marriage to my long suffering and ever-loving Jude.
However, I was upset, frustrated and quite frankly peeved that on discovering my cancer battle, close friends and family were so angry that they had not been informed.
Friends who I had known from boyhood were vociferous and caustic in their comments. ‘We’ve got to have a word mate’ and ‘How long have I known you? Didn’t you think for one minute I would need to know?’
My sister who was not informed of the diagnosis was dumbfounded: ‘You had cancer and you didn’t think to tell me?’
However, this was tempered by my work colleagues who were supportive and completely understood my reasons for secrecy.
But I totally understood my loyal friends and family’s reaction. I would have been absolutely seething had anyone of my friends and family kept their battle with cancer from me.
Their reaction was the price I paid for battling cancer in the war zone of my choosing.
The decision not to tell others partly rested on an experience I had early on in my road to diagnosis. While going through tests, I had mentioned on Facebook that I was in hospital, not revealing the extreme seriousness of the ‘cancer’ situation at hand.
For some reason I thought it only right to let people know I was in hospital. However, I really did not anticipate the outpouring of emotion that followed. It wasn’t far short of reading your own obituary!
The experience of having a multitude of people all asking after my health, offering advice and basically wanting to know way more than I was willing to share at that moment in time, was a real driver not to repeat the same mistake when I was diagnosed.
I am still glad I didn’t tell anyone else. In hindsight, maybe a few who were in the know didn’t need to have been informed.
People can assume that the decision is selfish, but to those of us who are ‘the soldier’ this is far from the case. It is an act of self-preservation.
Your world is caving in rapidly, and you need to do everything in your power as quickly and effectively as possible to retain your sense of reality, muster all your energy and fight like fury to overcome cancer. It is a battle you just must win and sometimes some of us need to face that battle in secrecy.
So, I can completely understand Julie’s reasoning for not telling people until now. It sounds like she needed to give herself the physical space to handle the hopes, fears and needs that every cancer patient experience whilst battling our own, individual diagnosis.
We don’t get a choice about battling cancer, but we most certainly do have a choice in who we reveal that battle to and, most poignantly, when, if at all.
Macmillan can help you make sense of the confusion and information overload following a cancer diagnosis. Get tailored support from day one by visiting macmillan.org.uk/diagnosis or call 0808 808 00 00
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