Should he know that I know?
August 28, 2006 12:34 PM   Subscribe

How do I correspond with someone who I have just learned has a life-threatening illness? (He doesn't know that I know.)

My college advisor, with whom I am sort of close, has recently been diagnosed with leukemia. I learned of this through unusual channels (gossip, basically,) and I'm not sure if, or how, I should acknowledge it. We normally exchange a few e-mails a year, maybe a phone call, but I have an immense affection for him (I went in to the same field, and he's very much a role-model and a bit of a hero.) My first impulse was to write him a sappy letter. This is fairly atypical for our relationship, however, and I certainly don't want to burden him with -my- anxieties about -his- illness. Should I pretend I don't know? I'd appreciate any suggestions.
posted by anotherpanacea to Human Relations (15 answers total)
Talk to him like you normally would. When I have dealt with these types of situations, people tend to appreciate the chance to just be normal for a bit. Most likely his family cries when they see him. His friends are saddened and weirded out by the situation. Just be yourself. He will appreciate the opportunity to escape from that.
posted by aburd at 12:43 PM on August 28, 2006

I wouldn't mention it unless he does.
posted by matty at 12:45 PM on August 28, 2006

Act normally, and don't mention you know.

First of all, it's their call whether to tell you or not.

Second of all, the above is correct - they think about their life-threatening illness enough - they probably don't want to talk to you about it or read a sappy letter reminding them they might die soon.
posted by agregoli at 12:57 PM on August 28, 2006

Act as if you didn't know.
posted by Izzmeister at 1:12 PM on August 28, 2006

It's not me is it?

Well in that case I would mention it. Just say that you heard it through the grapevine. No one is immune to the grapevine, he'll understand. Give the usual I'm sorry, stay stong speach, He's expecting it I'm sure. Then deflect the conversation away to a topic in your shared field.
posted by Gungho at 1:14 PM on August 28, 2006

Write a normal letter. When he replies, write back and mention that you heard that he was having health problems, is he okay? Also remind him that you've very fond of him and that he should call more often.

It's very awkward for him to work this into the conversation. "Just so you know, I'm ill, but ick, please don't make the sympathy face at me." Establishing communication again and then bringing it up all straightforward-but-not-weepy way can be a good way to handle it.
posted by desuetude at 1:15 PM on August 28, 2006

I've been through this from the opposite side (wife has had leukemia and, now, breast cancer). I think there's no "right" answer, so I think you should be guided by your heart. If your heart is 'sappy,' then he should know that you care. No one ever regrets hearing that they've touched another person and that people care for them.

What is burdensome is that illness in others inevitably holds up a mirror to our own fears and beliefs and often, when people start a sentence talking about the ill person, they finish the sentence (and paragraph and hour-long conversation...) talking about themselves.

Relatedly, it's important to know that leukemia is,as you say, life threatening. He's going to be in for a rough ride and it will dominate this phase of his life. However, it does not define him or his life. "How are you feeling?" gets old real fast. If he's a college prof, I guarantee you that one thing that's going on with him is that he's absorbing tons of information and relating it to his intellectual interests (i.e., he's learning the science and/or thinking about the vagaries of this mortal coil). Engaging him on those fronts is, probably, something that both you and he would enjoy.
posted by lobrien at 1:37 PM on August 28, 2006

I think you should write the sappy letter.

Whether he hopes to survive this or not, he will certainly be taking stock of his life right now, and the letter you have the generous and loving impulse to write will allow him to see you as one of his intellectual and spiritual children, and will help him face the prospect of death.
posted by jamjam at 3:06 PM on August 28, 2006

Wow, I'm surprised by the people who think you should ignore this news. Do they think the guy is somehow ashamed of being sick and deliberately keeping it secret? I doubt it. He probably just hasn't gotten around to telling every single person in his circle of friends, what with the doctor visits and the cancer treatments and all those other pesky little demands on his leisure time.

When you have a medical condition that's likely to kill you, believe me, you don't care one tiny bit that people are gossiping about you. But you care very much if you find out a close friend knew you were sick and didn't even bother to check in.

I would definitely send him an email or call and say something like "I was so sorry to hear that you're having health problems. What can I do to help you?" Just take it from there. Don't try to distract him. Don't talk about the weather. Listen to what he says.

Ask a question about his diagnosis to see if he wants to talk about it. If he does, encourage him with further questions and sympathy. If he doesn't, encourage him with plain sympathy. Go ahead and tell him that he's your role model. Send him flowers. Bring him a hot meal if you live nearby. If he laughs at you for being sappy, so the fuck what?

Most importantly, keep in touch. There's absolutely nothing wrong with a regular email or phone call to ask how he's feeling -- as long as he knows that you actually care about his answer.
posted by naomi at 3:18 PM on August 28, 2006

I have been down similar roads, but I would say that, if enough people know that you found out, he either:

A) Does not mind, just has not brought it up yet, or

B) Does not know people are discussing it.

If you are a good friend, I would definately broach the subject with him for no other reason than it is no good to keep to yourself that others are discussing his private life.

How do you think he would react if he did not want it getting around and then he found out you knew?
posted by slavlin at 4:10 PM on August 28, 2006

Wow, I'm surprised by the people who think you should ignore this news. Do they think the guy is somehow ashamed of being sick and deliberately keeping it secret? I doubt it.

And I'm equally surprised people are telling the poster to comment on the news.

Do you really think being ashamed is the only reason he wouldn't want others to know? That's ridiculous. I've worked with patients, family, and friends with similar diseases, and I've known quite a few who simply didn't want others to know. They wanted privacy. It has nothing to do with 'shame'. How bewildering that you think the only reason a person might want you to mind your own business is because of shame.

Not to mention the poster claimed they were "sort of close", which is not exactly a ringing endorsement of their friendship.

anotherpanacea, go with your gut. You know this person better than anyone on metafilter, so really, you're in the best position to know if it's appropriate. But do know that there is a chance he simply doesn't want the attention, wants his privacy, or maybe doesn't want his disease to become the topic of every conversation he has with friends and colleagues. Sometimes it can actually help a person deal with their situation by having close friends to talk to who don't see them as a friend with cancer/aids/enterdiseasehere but as simply a friend.

When you have a medical condition that's likely to kill you, believe me, you don't care one tiny bit that people are gossiping about you.

The problem is you can only speak for yourself, no one else. And when it comes to speaking for everyone, you're no doubt completely wrong.
posted by justgary at 5:31 PM on August 28, 2006

I went through something similar, once. I had gained a friend through a series of phone conversations (I worked in mail order, at the time), and we shared an awful lot of information with each other. Then, one day, he told me he'd been diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis at the age of 37.

He died 5 years later after waiting for a lung transplant that never came. I was one of the last people he spoke to, and after his death, his mother recounted to me how he spent an entire week drawing new sketches in his bed after we'd spoken, energized by how I seemingly didn't care about his illness, only that I could reach him on the phone and we could talk again.

My friend's name was Dameon Likowski, a fantastic artist who had only just begun giving the world something special.

If you are in fact close to your college advisor, now is the time to make sure he knows that. Who knows what's going to happen tomorrow. Hell, that goes for your mother, too. When was the last time you called her, anyway? :)
posted by thanotopsis at 6:15 PM on August 28, 2006

Obviously you in the "pretend you don't know camp" have never read Das Urteil.

Anotherpanacea, when your father tells you to drown yourself, don't listen to him!
posted by oxford blue at 7:46 PM on August 28, 2006

You have immense affection for him?

Don't write the letter. Go visit him.

Say, "Hi, wanted to drop by - you're been a large influence on me and a mentor, and I was worried. I heard through some good friends that you might be ill. I just wanted you to know, that if there is anything I can do, please feel free to ask."

He'll likely say thanks, and talk a bit about it.

When he says thanks, if you're sincere, feel free to add:

"Look, I'm sure you have lots of good people offering support, please make sure you count me in this group. I would feel honored to help in any way - it's not an inconvenience at all, rather it's me giving back to someone who gave me so much."
posted by filmgeek at 7:58 AM on August 29, 2006

Thanks everyone. I really appreciate the advice, especially the conflicting advice. The disagreement assures me of what I already suspected, that even after sufficient thought and calculation, these things still come down to making a decision. I'm going to go the sappy (yet hopefully unselfish) route, but only after I send him a light e-mail to gauge his response.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:52 AM on August 29, 2006

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