As a chronic oversharer myself (I can’t even keep a bikini wax burn a secret, much less a serious illness), at first I was surprised by how many women preferred to keep a cancer diagnosis a secret (one in four). But then, one of them told me her story.
In the survey, most people who fell into the sealed-lips camp said they didn’t want to burden their loved ones with bad news, and while that is a very legitimate concern, Valérie Orsoni says that her choice to keep mum had nothing to do with them and everything to do with her — and her decision helped save her life.
Valérie found out in the worst possible way that she was sick: by surprise. On the way to pick up her mom from the airport, she got a devastating call telling her that a test she’d taken months earlier — and forgotten about — had showed evidence of a deadly brain tumor and, thanks to a snafu in communications, they were just telling her now. Her doctor wanted to schedule her for emergency surgery… the very next day.
“I was gutted,” she says. “Me? Cancer? It couldn’t be! I was strong, young, immortal. Nothing that bad could happen to me!” She tried to call her doctor, but when she couldn’t reach him, she sat down and burst into tears. But after drying her eyes, she made a critical decision.
“I stood up, put my sunglasses on, went to the airport and acted as if what had just happened was not part of my life,” she says simply of her decision not to tell anyone.
All throughout her grueling treatment and even though doctors warned her she might die, she says she decided to not share her health struggles. “I could not stand feeling the eyes of pity on me,” Valérie explains. “I found out I was stronger by not sharing too much and by smiling more than I truly felt like doing.”
Contrary to what you might think, she says her fake-it-till-you-make-it approach helped her recover faster and better. “Not sharing my fight meant I had to force myself to take care of my body and my soul every single day: no shapeless sweats, no sneakers, no bare face!” In true Parisian fashion she adds, “So heels, sexy clothes and makeup it was!”
She says her silence helped there to be no hurt feelings all around because not sharing her fight meant she had no expectations whatsoever from her entourage. “No expectations means no deception, hence it allowed me to remain strong in your boots as I like to say.”
But really, it was about maintaining control of who Valérie saw herself as. “I just made no room for it [despair]. I did not want to know too much about it for fear that it would then become coupled with me as in ‘Valerie + C.’ Not knowing means not letting the cancer take a larger place than it should have in your life,” she says. “I refuse to let it define me!”
While Valérie’s reasoning may not make sense for everyone — personally I think the weight of having to keep such a huge secret would crush me — it was exactly what she needed. Now, she looks back at that dark day at the airport and says that being privately sick was actually a gift. “It gave me some much needed free-time and I realized my job at the time was not me.”
The experience made her realize that she wanted to help other people live their healthiest lives, just as she was learning to live hers, so she created LeBootCamp — a site where she enthuses that “people get coached to lose weight without putting their health at risk, while enjoying gourmet foods and exercising soundly.” And with over a million subscribers and many celebrity fans, she’s living her dream.
Valérie is definitely not alone in her silent experience, as the UK survey showed. “Every patient reacts differently to their cancer diagnosis,” says Jayne Molyneux, cancer health care manager at Bupa. “We are finding more patients choosing to keep their diagnosis to themselves and dealing with treatment on their own, or until they have come to terms with it.”
As someone who has not personally experienced cancer, what I missed the first time Valérie told me her story was that ultimately cancer takes away nearly all control the person has over their life. It’s important to give as much control back to the patient as possible. As Valérie so eloquently puts it, “By projecting happiness and strength, even when I was at the bottom of my despair pit, I attracted joy and energy.” That’s good advice for anyone, no matter what you’re struggling with!