I just finished reading a series of articles about Mo Mowlam. I realize that many people outside the UK might not recognize the name, so I'll take a moment to provide an overview: Marjorie "Mo" Mowlam was a member of the British Parliament from 1987 to 2001. In 1997, she was the first woman appointed to the position of Secretary of State of Northern Ireland and was tasked with overseeing and facilitating the Peace Talks in Ireland. She was a very popular political figure and was involved with the Good Friday Peace Agreement talks in early 1999. By 2000, she left the Secretary of State position and returned to the Cabinet. She retired from politics in 2001 and passed away in 2005.
Why the history lesson?
I'm interested in Mowlam's story because five months before she was appointed to the Secretary of State position in 1997, she announced she had a benign brain tumor. Benign as in "not cancerous, highly treatable, nothing to see here" kind of tumor. On January 17th, 2010, the news broke in the UK outlining the extent of Mowlam's illness. The article, "How Mo Mowlam mislead Tony Blair," outlines how Mowlam hid her terminal (malignant) cancer diagnosis from Tony Blair and the UK, going against the advice of her doctor. Only her husband and doctor knew how sick she really was as she accepted her position as Secretary of State. This news has caused a stir in the UK.
Secretly Courageous or Calculated Liar?
The range of judgments levied at Mowlam have been all over the map. To some, she's a liar. To others, she's courageous. Still others think she was reckless and foolish, and could have seriously jeopardized the 1999 peace talks. The debate has started in the UK: Did Mo have the right to confidentiality? She clearly knew what she was doing. She insisted her doctor keep private the severity of her cancer. He husband and medical team were the only ones that knew the extent and terminal nature of her illness. Her doctor has finally expressed his frustration dealing with the professional dilemma he found himself in with Mowlam. As her doctor, he was ethically bound to honor his patient's request. In his case, his decision to remain quiet could have affected national security. Forutnately, Mowlam's health never affected her job as the Secretary. I'm sure this very unique case will be subject to much debate in the coming weeks. If I was faced with this situation, I'm not sure what I'd do. In my own case, it took some time for me to accept my cancer diagnosis and build a confident life as a cancer survivor. Now, my cancer story is well known. Mowlam's situation is very unusual but does expose some concerns that all cancer survivors will face at some point: what information do you share and how do you share it so it won't negatively impact relationships, a career, or your life in general?
To share or not to share....
To address the question of whether or not a cancer survivor should disclose a new illness or diagnosis, the American Cancer Society developed a great outline on Talking About Cancer. Cancer And Careers provide a great deal of information on discussing a cancer diagnosis with employers. I firmly believe that honesty is the best policy. I've always been open about my cancer diagnoses and treatments. However, I know there are situations where this might not be the best advice. When and why would you tell someone to hid an illness? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject.
Have you ever hid a significant health issue from others? Do you know someone who hasn't publicly disclosed an illness for fear of job loss or career impacts? How do you think this story impacts the cancer community? What about other health communities? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
P.S. A few people have emailed to ask if I was a fan of Mowlam's. YES! Absolutely. I think she was in a very difficult position. She made a decision to move forward the best way she could think of when she was diagnosed. We might not all agree that this was the best course of action, but we should never judge or diminish another's decisions. I think Mo was a very strong woman and made a great impact on UK politics.