*September 2020* by Tess Taft, msw, licsw ©all rights reserved

This is the fourth part of a six-part series on how people cope with cancer. The first installment discussed GRIEF, DEPRESSION, and ANXIETY. The second installment included thoughts on ANGER.The third installment spoke to people who manage their feelings by WITHDRAWAL and RESIGNATION.

DENIAL

“I think they have it all wrong. I feel fine. How can so many doctors get it wrong? I know they talk to each other.”

“The doctor says she has liver cancer now. I don’t believe it. She has a new lump under her arm. It’s no big deal. I bought her new pants with a draw string so when she gains weight again, they’ll fit. ”

“He just has a bad cold. He’s had it for a long time. I just can’t imagine why it’s not going away. He just needs time to rest. He needs more water. He’s dehydrated.”

“She has a new lump under her arm. It’s no big deal.”

People who are coping by denying the reality of cancer’s fearful toll on body, mind, heart, and soul are usually very afraid. They are often trying to pull away from the horror of what they fear is happening to themselves or someone they love by telling themselves it is not so. There are those for whom denial has long been a way to deal with stress, as well as those who cannot risk looking deeply at anxiety for fear of triggering mental illness. I feel deep compassion for people who must hide, and I trust their stepping away from the truth; they would not do so if they did not need to. Most of the time they ease into understanding and accepting the truth, in their own way and in their own time. I do not believe it is wise to trample on someone else’s need to hide.

One woman managed her son’s death from cancer by denying the seriousness of his illness as it progressed. I understood immediately when she told me she had become psychotic for a year and admitted to a psychiatric hospital when she herself was diagnosed with cancer 10 years before. Her horror now was that she could not sacrifice her life for his, the horror of any parent whose child is so ill. Without agreeing with her, I quietly supported her every move to deny his cancer, claimed time with her when I made a home visit to talk about recipes, and told her what a wonderful job she was doing loving him. I noticed the relief on her face when I encouraged her to take a nap, or to let her husband attend to him. When he died, she was able to maintain her emotional balance and receive loving support from the whole family.

I also feel deep compassion for those who suffer when a loved one uses denial as an emotional safety net. It can be very lonely to carry the truth of cancer alone, or to have the freedom to really talk about it only when a loved one is not with you. Parents often feel this constraint when their children are around, no matter what their ages. It is very important to find people you can speak with freely. This may include members of a cancer support group where the profound emotional intimacy of the group can be healing, or a close friend, or a clergy member, or a therapist trained in family therapy who, even if she speaks with you alone understands what family members might be dealing with. Your support can include them all. Read more.