My parents were visiting last spring when an argument broke out. Since our family does not shy away from debate, that wasn’t surprising. But when my father yelled, “You know I’m a cancer survivor!” during this particular fight, I was taken aback for two reasons: My father doesn’t usually yell, and that was the first time I had ever heard him say he had cancer.
My parents have always been secretive about deaths and illnesses. In high school, I found out about a death in the family only because I happened to pick up the phone and overhear a conversation. My parents tried to preserve my innocence, but instead of feeling protected, I felt like something was always being hidden from me.
When I, a nearly 31-year-old adult, realized that my father had been keeping a gigantic — and serious — secret from me for years, I immediately felt like a child again.
After we calmed down, my father explained that he had missed a routine screening three years ago during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and that when he was able to get the test, the results revealed he had cancer. The treatment consisted of surgery to eliminate the cancerous cells, which initially seemed to remove everything. But a year later, the doctor found the cancer had returned, and my father endured radiation and hormone therapy for a few months. Just over two years after his initial diagnosis, the doctor declared that he was “no evidence of disease,” or NED — there were no signs of cancer remaining in his body.
Nearly two years passed between when my father learned that he was in complete remission and when I discovered that he had been sick. Because his diagnosis and treatment took place during the pandemic, he was able to hide his doctor visits and the side effects he was experiencing from us. When I finally saw him in spring 2021, the effects weren’t physically noticeable.
Still, we spent countless hours together during that time. We had even lived under the same roof for several months after his treatment, and shared hundreds of meals, car rides, walks and other moments with each other. Looking back, I remember thinking that he went to the doctor more than seemed usual, but when I asked if there was a reason why, he quickly changed the subject. Eventually, I stopped asking.
My dad worked for over 40 years in the medical industry as a dentist, and he has always been the person I’ve gone to for health advice, even if my concern is very unrelated to teeth. I couldn’t imagine keeping something so important from him. After the initial shock, I was relieved to hear the words “survivor” and “cancer” in the same sentence. I felt and still feel extremely grateful to have him doing well.
But I also felt that our relationship had suffered a slight blow. How could he have not shared his diagnosis or his subsequent treatment until now? I thought we were closer. I was upset that he didn’t want my support during that time, which I hoped would have helped ease the anxiety and fear I assume he must have been feeling.
I finally asked why he hadn’t told us sooner. He explained that he didn’t want to tell my siblings and me about the cancer until he knew whether the treatment would eradicate it. He said that he was worrying enough himself and didn’t want to burden us, adding that if the diagnosis had been terminal, he would have told us sooner.
I told him that his health would never be a burden to me — no matter what the outcome might be — and that I am always here to support him. Though I would have liked to have been there for him at that time, I respect his decision and choose to see it positively. This has helped improve our relationship.
In the eight months since my dad revealed his cancer journey, we’ve been honest in a way that we never were before that discussion. He is now more transparent about his health, and this has opened the door to other new conversations. He has been more forthright about his family and upbringing, as well as how he went about raising us, including the successes he had and mistakes he made. These authentic interactions, filled with the ups and downs he’s experienced throughout his life, have allowed for open, honest discourse that reflects our grown-up relationship. Though it has taken more than a decade, I finally feel like I’m an adult in my dad’s eyes.
And I’ve opened up more too. I used to feel embarrassed to share when things weren’t going well, especially financially. My pride prevented me from letting my dad know what I was going through. Now, I feel comfortable enough to talk through both the good and the bad without fear of judgment.
By finally being open with each other, my father and I are closer than we’ve ever been. Though we didn’t get here in the way I ever imagined we would, I am grateful that we got here before it was too late.
Learning my father’s secret has also given me a new perspective on what I choose to share with other people in my life. In the past, I’ve felt inclined to keep sensitive information to myself until the time seemed “just right” — which was often long after it was truly relevant or useful to reveal what I’d been hiding. I now recognize that keeping people in the dark can have serious consequences, some of which may not even be apparent to the secret-keeper. I’ve learned that there’s never really a “right time” — our deepest thoughts and experiences are part of our larger stories and never irrelevant.
Luckily, I got a second chance with my father. I would have been devastated if I hadn’t. Though everyone processes their experiences differently — especially intimate and vulnerable ones — I believe it’s important to open up about what we’re going through so we can give those closest to us a chance to offer whatever they can, and so we can receive their love.
Today my dad is still in complete remission, with no evidence of the disease. Though there is always a risk that his cancer could return, I’m hopeful that it won’t. Still, with the newly gained authenticity in our relationship, I am sure that if something goes wrong in the future — regarding his cancer or anything else — he will share it with me, and I’ll be there offering my loving, unwavering support.
Sophie Katzman is an educator and freelance writer. By day, she supports students with learning disabilities at an independent high school. When not at school, she is crafting her next story. In between, you can find her in the kitchen, entertaining her nieces and nephews, or traveling the world. Sophie holds a bachelor’s in creative writing and sociology from Trinity College, and a Master of Education degree in curriculum and teaching from Boston University. She lives in New York City. Read more from her at sophiekatzman.com.