The Ethical Dilemma: Should I Tell My 89-Year-Old Mother I Have Cancer?

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Don’t Tell Mama: I am a 55-year-old woman, single, never married, no kids; I have one older brother I don’t get along with and a very frail mom who is 89 and lives in a distant state with round-the-clock caretakers. I was recently diagnosed with cancer. Rather than break the news to my mother over the phone, I’m planning to tell her when I visit later this month. My brother, aunt, and cousin all tell me I mustn’t break the news—it will kill her. I feel I have every right to let my mother know what I’m dealing with, even if it upsets her and there’s nothing she can do but share my distress. We all managed to survive the long illness and death of my father twelve years ago. I realize she’s much weaker now, but I want my mother with me as I’m going through. Is this selfish of me?

—Misery Loves Company

Dear Misery,

I think the phrase “it will kill her” is hyperbolic and rarely accurate. In nearly ninety years, your mother has probably lived through many difficult passages, including the painful demise of her husband as well as her own declining health. I’ll bet she will be able to absorb the blow of learning you are dealing with cancer and might even be able to help you work through it.

You don’t say what your prognosis is and what treatments are in store for you, but I think it would be harder for your mom if she eventually learned that you didn’t trust her to handle your news and that everyone’s been keeping this big secret from her. It’s very likely you’ll be undergoing regimens that at the very least affect your mood and may be impossible to hide unless you keep your distance, even avoiding phone calls lest you sound upset. That behavior might be more difficult for her to cope with than knowing the truth. Meanwhile, if your condition gets worse (temporarily or permanently), will anyone ever explain to your mother what’s been going on with you, and if so, who and at what point? Keeping this secret seems both absurd and cruel. And very likely someone is going to spill the beans sooner or later, so it’s better if you take control of the disclosure now.

Break the news honestly but with as much positive spin as you can muster (even if you both end up in tears), and be grateful you still have a mother to empathize with you. Then the two of you can give each other some highly therapeutic emotional support.

Yes, there’s a chance that breaking your news could be swiftly followed by her passing, and in that case it might have been nicer if she could have exited without being worried about you. There’s even the possibility that your news could, as your family fears, hasten that outcome. But you both stand to gain so much more and suffer so much less if you keep your mom in the loop during this difficult period. Bear in mind that if you’re ever going to incline toward selfishness, this might be an appropriate time.

One other consideration: What do you think your mother would want you to do? If you’re absolutely sure she wouldn’t want to know, take the above advice with extra grains of salt. Otherwise, good luck with breaking your news to your mom, and with beating your illness.

Maybe I Do Want A Baby: Never in my life did I ever want children. After years dating and living with a man who had a child by his first wife, we married. He always made it clear that my not wanting children was crucial to him because of all the angst he endures trying to maintain a relationship with his son (there’s a lot of hostility from the ex and the kid). He always said he could never bear going through that kind of pain again if another relationship produced a child and then failed.

But now, as I approach midnight on my biological clock, I’m thinking maybe I would like a baby after all. When I brought it up, my husband became extremely agitated, reminded me that no children had been a condition of our relationship, and that while he loves me and doesn’t want to lose me, he can’t agree to it and doesn’t want to discuss it.

I love my husband deeply. He is wonderful to me in every other way. But I’m very upset, not so much that I might enjoy a child and he doesn’t want another, but that I believe he should consider it simply because I asked him to and it might make me happy. I feel that if he really loves me, he should at least revisit the idea. I’m not saying I definitely want a baby, only that I’d like to reopen discussion. A mutual friend says I’m wrong, that I’m reneging on one of the fundamental planks of our marriage contract. But people and partnerships change. What do you think?

—Aren’t Relationships Supposed To Evolve?

Dear Evolve,

Yes, relationships evolve in many ways—including splitting apart (as in “divorce”). Your husband has been crystal clear and consistent, and you were in complete agreement. He has his reasons—maybe he realizes he doesn’t enjoy fatherhood or is not well suited to the role; maybe he recognizes that adding a child subtracts from what he enjoys about marriage; maybe there are logistical and financial issues (time and money). He has first-hand experience being a parent, and he doesn’t want to try it again.

Meanwhile, you suddenly decide that you may maybe, perhaps, possibly want a baby. Do you think next week or the week after you may decide not so much? Could you be testing your husband’s devotion to you, in competition with his devotion to himself? Turn your question around: If you really love him, how could you pull this switcheroo, when the prospect makes him distraught? You say it might make you happy. Are you saying you aren’t happy the way things are?

This is the kind of situation where advice columnists suggest counseling, and I’m no exception. But if your husband is reluctant, get started on your own. Delve into why you are toying with a proposal so explosive to your established relationship.

Bear in mind, if you force the issue, your husband just might give in. If you do end up with a child, you could very well end up with a miserable husband or none at all, or you may not gain a child (infertility could be a problem) but you will have lost your husband’s trust. And if he refuses and you decide to leave for a mate willing to procreate, you still might not end up with a child, or with a partner with whom you are as compatible, or with any partner at all.

Although having children may appear fulfilling (and for many, it truly is), not everyone takes to the reality of parenthood, no matter how long or briefly they’ve dreamt of it. It’s possible you and your husband could have a child and you’d both live deliriously happily ever after, or that you will go forth and find Mr. X, have a child with him and live happily ever after. But you need to take a good hard look at what you stand to gain and lose before you back yourself and your husband into a kiddie corner.