Do I Tell My “Kids” I May Be Dying?

I discovered a lump in my right groin area about five years ago and, after rushing to my internist, dermatologist and for a sonogram, I learned there was a distinct chance I could have lymphoma. Remembering that that’s how Jackie O discovered her cancer, I was already planning my goodbyes.


Except for David and my sisters, I didn’t tell a soul about my impending surgery to excise the suspicious lump. Thank goodness, it was a benign cyst, and home I went, happy I was no longer facing doom. 

When I told my two young-adult “kids” about the surgery, and the joyous outcome, they were peeved that I didn’t tell them about the lump when I first encountered it. I calmly answered: “Why would I needlessly worry you? There was absolutely nothing you could do about it. You’ve got you’re own lives to lead.”

Empathy doesn’t cure lovesickness, homesickness, or cancer. When I was a 17-year-old freshman at Syracuse University, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, my father typed out countless letters trying to make me feel better.  And we spent hours on the phone discussing my hysterical state. Nothing worked.  I had what I’d classify as a mini breakdown, took the matter into my own hands, and went home.

Back to my lump. If the scenario had turned out differently, and I was suffering from lymphoma, I probably would have started treatment and figured out the best time to share the news with my kids. Sure, I would want to see my children often if I was ill, because I love them with every cell and molecule in my body, but I would never want my illness to disrupt their young lives, if I could help it.  I’m not a martyr. I’m just practical.  When my father was dying of metastatic melanoma in 1988, and I was 41, he didn’t expect me or my sisters to stay at his side 24/7.

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I apologize if I sound callous.  I’m not. I was at my single aunt’s side for three years, when she was ill with advanced  colorectal cancer, there every step of the way, during radiation and through surgery, and I accompanied her to every chemo treatment and CAT scan. And I have, and would continue to, drop absolutely everything to help my children in times of crisis.

Of course, I’d call on my kids, and on other loved ones, if I needed their physical help. But if there’s one thing over which I no longer thrive, it’s needlessly worrying and discussing problems, over and over, especially problems that aren’t even problems yet. It’s such a big waste of time and energy. I’d rather use my energy to attack and, hopefully, to solve the problem, that is, once it’s actually a problem.  Playing out “what ifs” is downright draining.shutterstock_113053960
I understand that many families need to share and endlessly discuss their challenges, health or otherwise. Perhaps it gives them comfort to know they have a “support” system. The only thing that gives me comfort is knowing I have the tools to “support” myself.

  • Pamela H

    I loved what you said: “I no longer thrive, it’s needlessly worrying and discussing problems, over and over, especially problems that aren’t even problems yet. It’s such a big waste of time and energy. I’d rather use my energy to attack and, hopefully, to solve the problem, that is, once it’s actually a problem. Playing out “what ifs” is downright draining.”
    We don’t have children, but my sister who is in her 30’s thrives on worrying about what might happen about EVERYTHING. I thought maybe she can’t change, but your words give me hope. Thanks!

  • Steve Graczyk

    Another thing to consider is that it is all about the sick person and if
    some can’t leave themselves out of the equation (and we KNOW who they are!) then they can email
    their love and wish them a speedy recovery.

  • Steve Graczyk

    I think that keeping extreme illness secret denies others the chance to help in situations that may need it. I understand the waiting for a certainty of the diagnosis but waiting until the illness or treatment is over (or death occurs) is taking privacy too far. No one likes to be told that they aren’t needed (or mature enough) or even allowed into a loved ones circle in times of crisis.

  • Barbara Flournoy

    I try to keep my adult children informed about my medical status’ especially lately because I have several health challenges arise this year already. Last year I prepared my Will and my Power of Attorney for healthcare. My children did not handle that process well. It is as if they feel “if we don’t mention ‘it’ , then ‘it’ won’t happen.” I have received enough diagnoses to understand that everyday is another blessing. I do think family should be made aware… even of potential outcomes.

  • Trish

    I think you owe it to your kids to tell them when you know for certain, but not until a diagnosis is actually made. When I was pregnant with my son the Doctor told me he had Down’s Syndrome. I told no one because I wanted all of the testing to be done first to known the extent of the issue. I also needed time to absorb this new reality. In the end, he was fine- they had simply read my initial blood tests incorrectly. I avoided worrying others and having a lot of sad conversations with friends and family by waiting. I feel the author did the exact same thing.

    • GeriFOF

      Wonderful story, wonderful outcome.

      Geri Brin

  • annon123456

    I have lymphoma, and have had breast cancer on both sides. First cancer my kid was in 4th grade. Her best friend’s mother had died of BC not even 9 mo earlier so she was scared BC meant death. Reassured her multiple times. When I got they lymphoma diagnosis she was 11th grade. Didn’t share it until I knew for sure and had the treatment plan in place. I did NOT tell her it was one of the incurable ones. Kids don’t have the same sense of time that adults do. I still have’t told her that right now it has no cure and she is now 23. I will tell her it is one of the ones with no cure when I relapse again. Had I gotten any one of my cancers meant a death sentence within just a few years I would have told them, but still not initially. I would have told them when it would either be apparent I would never even get into remission or after a relapse. THEY don’t need that stress, worries about their future for years in advance of my death… I would and will make sure my kid has plenty of time to process it with me around, but I am not going to have her worry about it for years.

    • Geri Brin

      Hello, Annon,

      May you have many many decades of remission in front of you.
      I greatly admire your attitude and the way you’ve handled this situation.

      Fondly,
      Geri

  • Terri Ottenwess

    I have to disagree. My mother died when I was 16. I remember that day. I started a silly argument with her in the morning and when I got home from school, I complained what a lousy day it was. The conversation was just about me and then quickly left for work never to talk to her again. To this day I feel the guilt of how selfish I was. Again, I was only 16 and thought that people live forever. A few months after her death we found a note in her purse to us kids and that she knew she was diagnose with lupus. If only I would have know I would have made every moment counted. I wouldn’t have been a typical teenager; my conversations wouldn’t have always been about me. I don’t know why she didn’t tell us kids; it was never explained. But to this day I still live with the guilt.

    • Geri Brin

      Hi Terri,

      Just to be clear, I would absolutely tell my children if I had a serious disease. I just wouldn’t tell them when I was having a medical test and needlessly alarm them.

      I understand how you feel, but I don’t think you were being selfish at all. You were just being a typical teenager. She may have been trying to “protect” you from hurt and “protect” herself from watching you be hurt. We mothers do strange things. 🙂

      Thank you for writing. Your story touched me.

      Fondly,
      Geri

      • Terri Ottenwess

        Hi Geri,
        I do understand that us mothers do strange things. But I think sometimes we have to let our children “worry”; they have a right to be concerned. They love us just as much as we love them.

        • Geri Brin

          hi again, terri,

          great point!

          geri

        • annon123456

          Children do have the “right” to know at some point, but because they are the child and we are the parent we are also relied on in ways that kids don’t really realize. I know that I needed to get a grip before I told my daughter anything about any of my cancers because when I told her it is also then going to be about her and her needs, not just about me and mine. Maybe not at that exact moment when I told her but it wasn’t going to be easy for her either. The emotional earthquake of a nasty diagnosis makes it really difficult at times, especially early on, to be able to handle my emotional state/needs and appropriately cope with my child’s reaction and needs.

          • Roslyn Tanner Evans

            I love annon’s explanation from the perspective of a mother. We need to be able to deal with our own emotions and be able to absorb others. Big challenge that we meet at different paces. Compassion for all.

    • Roslyn Tanner Evans

      Terri Ottenwess, Your mom had her reasoning for not telling her kids. She may have just wanted the end of her days to be like all her other days. She knows a 16 year old will be self-focused. Stop feeling guilty- Its the last thing she would have wanted for you. Remember the exact ways you were with her as her wishes. Guilt serves no purpose & I understand why you would naturally have it.

  • Roslyn Tanner Evans

    I recently told someone I was anxiously awaiting the results of their Dr visit, so please text me asap. The response I got was, “Don’t give me your stress.” This baffled me, so I talked about it with 2 dear friends, 1 who understood that reaction. She explained when she was facing medical uncertainty, her plate wasn’t big enough to absorb my concerns. My concern was distorted by my needs. It took a lot of conversation & I finally got it.

    The beauty is learning to see things through someone else’s perspective., so for those who may read this woman’s account & not understand it, read it over as if you were her.

    • Geri Brin

      Hi Roslyn,

      What a thought-provoking comment. You were so smart to delve into her baffling reaction and so lucky to come out on the other side with such insight.

      Geri