Health scares can prompt some people to share and others to clam up. As a talker, I didn’t think twice about spilling the “bad mammogram” news to my closest confidants. But when I began blogging about my breast cancer scare as it unfolded for MORE.com, my story truly went public.
Posting the blog links on Facebook meant I’d traded in my health information privacy card and become the poster child for broadcasting your biopsy. My story may be an exaggerated version of information sharing, but it captures some of the lessons learned when you decide to reveal sensitive health information before all the answers are in. As a psychologist, I believe that sharing a health scare is a personal choice that is best made after examining your needs and preferences. It was the right choice for me, but isn’t for everyone. When all was said and done, I wasn’t sorry I shared but I did learn some important lessons. Some were predictable. Some were surprising. All were valuable.
Lesson 1. Don’t blab about your medical appointment or procedure if you don’t want to be questioned about the outcome.
If you mention in casual conversation that you are going for a mammogram, colonoscopy, or CT scan, some friends and acquaintances will later ask how it went. Generally this is a thoughtful and innocent gesture. Nearly everyone expects you will say, “Fine.” But if you crave privacy, you may be faced with sharing medical information you don’t want to reveal.
Lesson 2. Not everyone needs to know today about your health scare.
Some people are better left in the dark (at least temporarily). In my case, these people were my 75-year-old mother (a self-proclaimed “worrier”) and my 20-year-old son (a college junior in the middle of mid-terms). I didn’t want to keep secrets but I wasn’t going to take the fall on a bad exam grade or unnecessary maternal anxiety. Keeping secrets can be hard for us self-disclosing types. But it can be a gift to those who may not be in the right place to be helpful.
Lesson 3. Even if it’s unpleasant, you will learn something important.
Sharing your fears and details about a health scare means others will share their stories with you. This isn’t always comfortable. It’s not for the squeamish or the person who prefers silence. It’s a lot like pregnancy—good stories with great advice, comforting stories that inspire you, and questionable stories you don’t want to hear (“I was in labor for two solid weeks”). If you can sift through the lot, you’re bound to find more than a few tips to help you through this medical journey.
Lesson 4. People will surprise you.
Talking about a health scare with family, friends and strangers is a funny thing. Honesty can make you vulnerable but it can also cut you a break. Family members switch roles. Friends rally. Supportive strangers surface. These are the good surprises. And the friends who ignore you or trivialize a serious situation? They are the bad surprises you never saw coming.
Lesson 5. Always share good news quickly.
When people share your anxiety they are entitled to share your relief. You’ve got phone calls to make and right away when there is good news. You will be tired of talking the day you get the news but it is a small burden to bear for the blessing of support.
Hint: If you tell, keep a list.
Lesson 6. Disclosure can help someone.
Being hit by a ball I didn’t see coming sent me running for my support system. Going public gave me a bigger one. I discovered friends and acquaintances who had had similar journeys. I found others who used my story to motivate their own health behaviors.
When you share your health scare as it unfolds, you run the risk of feeling like you riled everyone up for “nothing” when you have a good outcome. I try to remind myself that health scares aren’t “nothing”. For most of us, difficult moments are battled best with family and friends by your side. For some of us—the sooner, the better.