Heinous or Harmless – terminal illness

Lifted shamelessly from Hashkafa.com (I edited it for grammar)


Inspired by an article in this week’s Mishpacha.

So there was an article about this couple who kept secret the fact that the husband’s father was dying of cancer. Who did they keep it secret from? The father (cancer victim) and his wife. Basically, dad goes into hospital after routine check up shows abnormalities and doctors find cancer. The (only) son decides not to tell his father and mother because they went through the Holocaust. They conspire with the doctors (under rabbinic guidance, don’t you worry) to pretend all is well and to hide the fact that the medicine is chemotherapy etc. (first he takes a pill and later after that doesn’t work chemo) Because of this the father lives 3 more years when the expected time is 9-12 months.
Is this ever okay? Or even as the article claims a laudable practice?


*If anyone has a copy of the article, if they can scan it in and send it to me I would appreciate it. Thanks.

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27 responses to “Heinous or Harmless – terminal illness

  1. Lady Lock and Load

    Having had a father who went through the holocaust, I agree with the actions of this couple. The less they know the better.

  2. I use to say, no, this is never okay. However, the idea that everyone wants to know there dying is passe according to at least some therapists.

    Much depends on the character of the person themselves, as well as how good the rest of the family could be in keeping the secret.

    Some would use that time to appreciate each moment of the day, others would just go into a depression.

    Was this a true event or a story?

    • I personally haven’t read the mishpacha article, so I cannot speak to its veracity, but I know of several similar cases that actually did happen.

  3. Heinous. Unless there is some sort of mental illness, they have a right to know.

  4. I have also heard stories of elderly people not being informed about the death of a sibling until a month had passed, so that they would not have to sit shiva, or never being told because the news would be devastating.

    Old people have brains and feelings too. I understand wanting to protect them, but they have a right to decide whether to treat their illness aggressively or not, and to be given time to make their peace with this world.

    • Lady Lock and Load

      I understand your viewpoint hadassah and probably would have agreed with it, but since my father was a European Holocaust survivor I understand why they withheld the information from him. It is hard for me to exactly explain how different they are, but I’ll tell you this…they are extremely afraid of sickness, and if they sneeze they are worried they are dying already. It’s a whole different kind of world having parents who survived the holocaust.

      • I get it, I totally understand that mind set. My own grandparents were Holocaust survivors and I totally understand the fear of sickness and dying. I just feel this man had a right to know and make informed decisions about his health care.

        • Lady Lock and Load

          and your grandparents were able to make informed decisions regarding their health care? If they are no longer alive, did they suffer from cancer? Were you involved in caring for them? How did they cope with their illness? The European holocaust survivors don’t understand english and all the medical jargon confuses and scares them.
          Have you read the article hadassah? I think it would be good for you to read it. It is an article that was written for a very personal situation and the loving son and daughter in law did what was best for their father because they knew him best. It is in no way saying that this should be done in every situation. But we should respect their personal decision, even if we would have done otherwise.

          • I watched my grandmother die from cancer. Until she was no longer lucid she made her own informed decisions. Once her lucidity was gone her grandchildren (me and my brothers) made the decisions based on what we knew she would have wanted. When my grandfather was dying, my grandmother who spoke English well made the decisions with him and for him.

            As I said above, I have NOT read the article, I would totally love to read it if someone can scan it in and send it to me.

            • Lady Lock and Load

              I am sorry about your grandmother. watching a loved one pass away is very painful. It sounds like she was able to cope with her situation and handle it without freaking out or going into denial. when my daughter comes home I will ask her to scan it and e-mail to you.

  5. This reminds me of a story that has stayed with me over the years. I work in oncology. We had a patient whose family decided that she should not be told she had cancer and she only discovered the truth when she was in the end stages and very weak. What she felt was anger. Time was stolen from her. Had she known what she had she would have used her time differently when she still felt better. She would have taken a trip to Hawaii with her young daughter.

  6. The well intentioned people who decided for her stole from her a piece of her life which ironically was what they were trying to protect.

  7. first of all, if that isn’t illegal it should be- patients should not be given any treatment without informed consent.

    The fact that he lived 3 extra years has nothing to do with him not being told he had cancer. My FIL has had lung cancer for the past 3 years, and the expected life expectancy is 6 months after diagnosis. My MIL has had amalidosis for the past 8 years, and was told 8 years ago that she had 3-5 years to live. Guess what? They both know what diseases they have, and yet they both outlasted the life expectancy for people with their disease! That’s because those life expectancies are *averages* and there are tons of people who live both shorter and longer times than the ‘average’.

    Scientific studies have shown that despite what popular culture tells you, having a specific attitude about having cancer has absolutely no effect on the progression of cancer.

    OTOH since my in laws have been diagnosed with these diseases, they have drastically changed their lives- my MIL made up with my husband after not talking to him for a few years (cause of religious stuff) and 8 years later they have a great relationship, and my in laws have spent the last 8 years traveling the world, because they decided that if they are going to die they want to see the world first.

    Old people aren’t children- they’re the opposite of children in fact! They have the right to know what is going on with their own health so that they can change their lives appropriately. Attempted to protect them because they are Holocaust survivors is patronizing at best (which I don’t even get either- so holocaust survivors shouldn’t know they will one day die like everyone else?)

  8. most importantly, how do they know the father lived longer than expected because he was kept in the dark? I do not believe anyone should ever be lied to or not told the whole truth. Perhaps i feel strongly about this as i am a cancer survivor. But, it reminds me to have difficult conversations with people regarding their attitude about knowing truth verses sugar coating the truth.

    • I think there is a pervasive pop-culture idea that having a ‘positive attitude’ can actually help cure diseases. I recently went to a very interesting talk by Barbara Ehrenreich who was promoting her new book called “Bright-sided: how the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America.” I haven’t read the book, but at the talk she talked about all the advice she got when she was going through breast cancer treatements, and how that advice counteracts actual scientific studies (she has a phd in biochemistry) and can actually be damaging because it can result in, well, situations like this one! (and also because it causes cancer patients who are NOT optimistic to feel doubly bad about it because not only are they unhappy because of their disease, they believe that their unhappiness is actually worsening the disease- which it isn’t).

  9. it is ludicrous to conclude that keeping the patient dark is what prolonged his life.


    “We had a patient whose family decided that she should not be told she had cancer”

    i don’t know if this is illegal, but from i was taught in medical ethics this is most certainly unethical.

  10. I read the article, and the author does say that she is not advocating this for everyone. But in their case, they felt they were doing the best thing for their father. The son knew his father, and understood that – for him – this was the right decision.

  11. I come down on the heinous side.

    And maybe he would have lived 5 years had he known the truth – who knows? It’s arrogant to decide we know why things happen the way they do.

    Although, apparently in Japan, this is commonplace practice, even normal.

  12. informed consent is a legal requirement, not just an ethical one. doctor who does not discuss with a patient the diagnosis and treatment may be sued for negligance.


  13. Can someone explain to the goyeh why anyone would even consider lying to a loved one about the state of their health because they lived through the Holocaust? Or for any other reason?

    I can only put myself in the father’s position. I would want to say goodbye. I would want to cram in as much living as I possibly could. I would want to celebrate my life with my loved ones while I still could.

    If it was my sibling who crossed over, I would want the chance to mourn. I have that right. I have that choice.

    So I’m coming down on the side of heinous for this one. Add to that unethical, mercenary, shady, unfair, unscrupulous, and just plain wrong.

    • I hate when you refer to yourself as a goy. Bothers me.

      Holocaust survivors are a different breed of person. Their frames of reference for sickness are indeed skewed. In the camps, if one had a little tickle in the throat – eventually that could mean death. no antibiotics, no doctor, no hot soup, cold conditions. the smallest sniffle was a death sentence. Illness, even decades after the war, was frightening. Many survivors over protected their children born after the war, because of the various fears they have.

      I remember my grandfather ob”m (of blessed memory) had a cough. A chest cough. He went into the bathroom to cough up some phlegm. He locked the door. He coughed for a minute or two. My grandmother ob”m was outside the door, hammering on it, yelling “Bumi, Bumi, open the door, open the door. Open the door now”. She was totally freaking out that he would die on the floor from coughing.

      Did my explanation help?

      • Lady Lock and Load

        Also, Hadassah, Holocaust survivers have so many unresolved issues and it impairs their ability to handle things, especially illness, death and dying. One time my mother had to go to Manhatten for an angiogram and the doctor explained to my parents the risk of having one. watching their faces, I asked the doc if it was necessary to explain this to them and he said he had to. so he tells them she could have all these complications and die. My father turned to me and said WE ARE GOING TO BURY YOUR MOTHER HERE! He picked himself up and took my mother and walked out of the hospital. After bringing them there from far away for this procedure, he chickened out!

      • And here I thought I’d get props for using the right gender of the word….. 😦 Besides, I hate using the word ‘gentile’. It sounds like I’m not fully copus mentus. “Shh…. not so loud, you know she’s… (insert furtive looks and dramatic pause)… a GENTILE.

        Goy(eh) also has a much more assertive sound to it, which I think you’ll agree suits my personality.

        Now that you’ve explained it, I understand the fear of illness in general, but I would think there would be some comfort in knowing that yes, this is it. This is the illness that’s going to send me to meet my maker, so I don’t have to worry about it any more. I can get my affairs in order, say my goodbyes and make my peace with the world. It’s not hiding around the next corner.

        But then, maybe I’m just… (insert furtive looks and dramatic pause)…WEIRD. 😉

    • Lady Lock and Load

      I have no problem with her referring to herself as a goya, she is funny! My non jewish friends do that all the time!

    • Having had not much experience with Holocaust survivors, I too, do not understand this situation. (It has nothing to do with religion)

      I do not like when people generalize all the survivors into one category. Many have become lovers of life to the fullest, others have been productive, others haunted, others have gone mad… It’s just unfair to assume that this case makes sense “because they suffered through the Holocaust”.

  14. I would want to know that I was dealing with a terminal disease. I would want that opportunity go out and see the world. To fully enjoy what time I would have left. To tell those I love just how much.
    It is so sad that we feel that we have to face dying to be strong enough to say all those things we would want to say and take the time to do all the things we’d want to do.

    My Bubbie (ob”m) was suffering from pains and finally the doctor sent her for blood work and they found it was cancer. She looked at my mom in the hospital and said, “Take me home. I am going to die in my home, not here.” Try as she might, my mom could not convince her that her death might not come quickly.
    Well, my bubbie was ready. She went home and 2 weeks later was gone. She chose what she wanted, and in the end, she was surrounded by those who loved her.

    My Zaide (ob”m) also has a unique story. He had had surgery on an aneurism 10 years before his death, and unbeknowkst to the family, the Drs. did not operate on them all because his chances of survival on the operating table were very slim. My Zaide chose to keep this to himself and live out what time he had left without burdening the family- 10 whole years! In the end, at the hopsital, they had him stabilized and my father was visiting with him. He asked for some orange juice and told my dad to “light a candle for him”.

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