In the spring of 2016 my husband was diagnosed with cancer. Diffuse Large B Cell Lymphoma. A treatable, and curable, cancer. He had a lump, or now we know it as a tumor, by his ear for several months. He felt it around Christmastime and we both chalked it up to something related to a broken jaw he sustained 4 years ago. Scar tissue, some sort of fleshy growth….nothing that maybe wouldn’t go away on its own.
So we both sort of forgot about it. We were busy and didn’t have time to worry.
Until 2 months later and I notice it’s a bit bigger and I think, “yeah, he might need to get that looked at…..” I thought, “he can just go see the doc who first saw him for his jaw. He’ll know what it is. Maybe excise it. And that’ll be it.”
The power of denial.
The funny thing about this is that I worked in inpatient and outpatient Oncology for years as a therapist for patients and their families. And in my private practice, many of my clients are either current cancer patients or loved ones of cancer patients. And not, once…..not once, did I think he could have a malignant tumor.
The power of denial.
And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. We were pulling into the bank when the phone rang. My husband and I had been waiting to hear from the Head and Neck Surgeon for many weeks. Feel frustrated that we hadn’t received the results from Pathology and the doc had not been returning our phone calls, we were looking forward to this conversation. The conversation that would say “He’s fine.” No news here.
The power of denial.
Well, I could not have been more wrong. The surgeon said, “Um, I’m sorry to tell you…. the pathology results are back. Your husband has cancer. It’s Lymphoma.” I thought “WHAT? WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY??” He then said, “You need to see an oncologist.” Holy shit.
I was shaking my head in tears saying “But wait. We eat really well, don’t smoke, exercise a ton. And we’re YOUNG. This is NOT. SUPPOSED. TO. HAPPEN.”
There went my denial.
Like a punch in the face.
Over the years I have heard many patients say regarding their cancer diagnosis, “Instead of ‘Why me?’ I think of it like ‘Why not me?’ ” I was always so touched by that statement in its nobility. I quickly realized that now that was my husband and our family. “Why not us?” Although I didn’t feel so noble.
There went my denial about cancer and that it happens to others.
For most of us, denial can be and is a wonderful defense mechanism. It is what allows us to continue with our daily lives during difficult times. It is what allows us to think (at least kind of think), function, to keep moving forward.
Denial can serve us well.
How many times have you heard someone says, “He/She is in denial.” Always as if it’s a bad thing. But I’m here to say that denial can be a necessary shield. Its the Putting The Hands Over The Ears and saying “lalalalalalala” way of coping that can be an effective tool. One that we humans sometimes use to drown out information and emotional states that are just too difficult to cope with.
I remember a psychiatrist I used to work with many years ago talking about a patient’s denial. I worked in an inpatient eating disorder unit and we were discussing a patient’s family history and her current manifestations of childhood trauma. The individual therapist was frustrated at the roadblock she had hit with the patient; the client would not “go there” in her psychotherapeutic work. The (wise) psychiatrist said something like “Don’t push her. She’s not ready. She may be in denial, but she needs it right now. If you push her too hard to face her issues (what you see now but she doesn’t want to) may just unravel her.”
I was so struck by that statement at the time and I have never forgotten those words.
Yes, denial can be destructive. I think we all know that. Like when we don’t pay attention to our overspending and get into financial debt. Or when we don’t pay attention to our marriage and are shocked when a crisis like an affair hits.
But there are times when denial is needed. If I had not been in some denial after my husband’s surgery I don’t know how I would have worked with my clients. We waited for three weeks for the pathology results. During that time I worked full-time tending to my psychotherapy practice.
Sure waiting for the results was ever-present in my mind, but I wasn’t obsessed with it. I had comfort in thinking “Everything will be fine. It’s life as usual.”
So yeah, denial can be a not-so-good thing. As well it can be a life preserver that we just might need at the time. I really believe we humans can only handle so much emotional information.
The mind intervenes to protect the heart. And our denial allows us to take in information, and then (hopefully!) face and accept what life is presenting to us.
So here’s to the power of denial and helping us to cope when life throws us a curveball.