“The trouble is, you think you have time” –
From “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book”
The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer was the day the “Big D” packed his bags and left me. I don’t blame him. If I could have, I would have done the same thing. But I can’t replace my body. It’s the only one I’ll ever have.
Denial is like a mistress: you know it can get you in trouble, but you like her so much. You like how it makes you feel uncommitted, burden-free. You also think you need her in order to run away from the reality you refuse to face, but that with time, you will eventually face. And when you do, that’s when denial becomes out of your reach — just a fantasy. A fantasy you wish could have lasted forever.
Denial is an important tool— a tool that allows you to cope with life in general. Once it’s taken away from you, everything becomes raw, including those situations we often want to run away from. Revelations are exposed and whether you are ready or not, you need to face them, on your own. It’s now time to accept reality.
But there are different types of denial and some are healthier than others. One situation where denial is a useful tool is when it comes to mortality. Imagine if we all thought about our death all the time. How would one cope? We wouldn’t be able to find a lot of joy. A lot of the decisions we would make would end up depending on the awareness of death.
We are all aware of mortality because we see others dying, but denial allows it to be kept at a distance. We don’t believe death can happen any time soon.
It was very interesting for me to see people’s reaction when learning about my cancer diagnosis — all so different — but most had one thing in common. They all lacked the awareness of the possibility of them being diagnosed with cancer as well. That they could lose their life in the blink of an eye. I sometimes wish I still had that kind of denial, the kind where, after hearing someone’s else’s bad news, you process it, then move on. I miss having that. Not having denial is one of the things that makes survivorship so challenging at times.
Although I wanted to keep my diagnosis private at the beginning, I couldn’t help but to try to bring more awareness to others, especially my family; after all, we have a history of cancers. However, some of their responses were shocking to me. Some of my family members denied the possibility of ever getting any cancer. Others inclined toward the idea of me not being religious enough. Because they were more religious than I, in their beliefs, they were less likely to get an illness. In other words, those of us who have been diagnosed with breast cancer were somehow asking for it. This is how Denial takes over people’s heads.
Some of my friends were not educated about the disease and so assumed that because I had a history, I was more likely to get it, and not them.
Thankfully, I am educated enough (now) — and at peace with myself — not to take these comments too personally, but I do worry about them. I worry about the young ones in my family. And I worry about those who lack the discipline to go check their bodies. But I am aware that it is not my responsibility to make people be diligent about their health. I can only control what I do with my health.
Losing my denial was as hard as, if not even more difficult than, being diagnosed with cancer. I lost a sense of hope. I don’t fantasize about my future as much as I used to. I have a hard time planning ahead. I live from one Oncology appt. to another — I think of the interval between them as being on a mental “vacation”— and I make sure to include at least one happy activity. Maybe this is the “good” tradeoff about losing your sense of denial, that you are so aware that life can be taken away from you that you try to do as much as you can. Be as happy as you can. But this is not always the case. Some people have a really hard time coping after cancer. And this is normal, too.
There is a gap between those who have been diagnosed with cancer and those who haven’t. We patients often feel minimized by the non-cancer people when we expose our emotions and fears to them. They expect us to “move on” after treatments are over. To go back to who we used to be. We say that others who haven’t walked the cancer path don’t get it. But there’s a reason they don’t get it; not only haven’t they experienced what we have, but their responses and reactions are also a reflection of their denial.
So here I am, thinking of my old days when I thought I would live for a very long time and that there was no way mortality would knock on my door at the age of 32. There’s still a chance I might live to be old, but the awareness of death is too raw for me now. I also find it difficult to go back to my old self. Strangely enough, I feel safer where I am today — not having to rely on denial to stand between me and the unseen cliffs of life. I now know the cliffs are there, and I’m trusting myself to do the watching.
But, to those who have been lucky enough not to receive a mortality notice, such as a cancer diagnosis, enjoy your Denial as long as you can. Because once it decides to pack its bags, you might find it will not come back. Try to do as much as your heart desires. Tomorrow is never promised to anyone.
such a deep story in so many different levels. made me think, maybe a little bit too much. great post as usual. I love the way you write. cheers 🙂
I am glad you enjoyed the read. Thank you for your kindness and for the comment.
beautifully written, sad but beautiful xx
Thank you so much for reading, Amanda. xo
Well written! I’m two weeks away from having my cancerous kidney removed. You hit the nail on the head…what it feels like to be the one that has it…. Great post!
I am sorry you are dealing with the cancer mess. I am wishing you a smooth and quick recovery. This whole c thing is a process, but there will be good days.
One day at a time is how we do it. Thank you for commenting.
Hey Rebecca, I finally went to see my therapist so I get to Mr Advice until the sensible things she suggests wear off.
You sound angry and cheated like me so I might know the feeling and say something useful here. Pulling into my self, feeling detached and maybe sophisticated about having “been there” went to hell last week when we found out our younger daughter’s house-mate’s best friend had died of cancer. Surprise! I wasn’t sophisticated enough to do anything but freeze and I think it’s because Leslie and I were told not to speak about it in Cath’s presence.
Not speaking feels so wrong because I just realized it’s a form of healing myself. Maybe a weird form of denial that my experience kept quiet is some sort heroic gesture that earned me the right to be the emperor of suffering? This stuff isn’t sensible and I’m likely not being clear, but politely stepping back from someone’s grief is something we can’t do–we know too much to say we don’t see what we see or feel what we feel.
I’m writing this unresolved feeling as a way of illustrating that the “wisdom” I get from my therapist and your writing too is not neatly wrapped or easy to discuss. I wonder about denial and if it’s bad for our own healing to ignore help we could attempt to give? Is it selfish to think of ourselves as “benefiting” or something we can’t deny sharing?
Not sure how to end this so I’ll leave it.
Hey Scott! Yes, I def. feel we all have been cheated. I try not to feel too bad about it when I think of the children who experience such pains.
I am very sorry about your daughter’s house-mate’s best friend. I’ve been hearing bad news more often than ever before. Makes me wonder if it has always been this way, and I was just young and in denial.
You brought up a few interesting points here. For me, speaking — letting it all out — is a form of releasing bad energy which can contribute to healing ourselves. Yet it is so difficult to express myself to “certain people.” Like you said, we know too much and sometimes that knowledge can get in our own way. Maybe?
I think suppressing any kind of emotion we feel isn’t beneficial to ourselves, but that’s me.
I am glad you are getting some level of support.
Rebecca, letting it out is most definitely a value and think it’s mostly because there are others who respond in kindness. We ask for help and it comes. It’s especially powerful here where Rebecca Hogue brought together an “unofficial” conversation that’s been so helpful to me. A place to share that “too much” that we know without scaring people away.
As humans we need to share and I felt shut off from that but couldn’t get by on the bitter turning in on myself, isolation and bitchiness. So I surrendered a bit hurt for some help and it looks like it will work.
Think I had denial upside down too. I denied myself help because it came with the price of having to let go of my heroic image as cancer survivor. Letting people tell me I have to drop some baggage I paid so dearly for didn’t seem right–like they were disrespecting my suffering. But how long can we go on as stars in our own tragic opera? That’s no a safe place to be either.
How about trying being great tragic figures that came back to earth to be sad and bad and a bit vulnerable again? I sure as hell can’t deny that bad things will happen to me yet worry about being too sophisticated about it.
Hi Scott — There’s nothing more annoying to me than having my feelings/emotions minimized by people who don’t even have a clue where we stand. (Wondering if it’s “denial” we talk to which is why it makes it so hard for us to be understood.) I know you’ve been dealing with that kind of reaction from people and I am glad you seem to be moving in the right direction. We don’t have to always be strong. And at times I think we expect too much from ourselves. It’s OK to kick and cry, and it’s also OK to get help.
Great post. I think I need to read it again tomorrow, fresh. But I’ve been thinking about denial as well recently. Sometimes I go into denial that all of this is really happening. Like suddenly, I can’t wrap my brain around it all. And then I snap back. It’s strange.
I think we are left with some level of denial, or perhaps hope, but it isn’t the same kind we once had — at least this is how I feel about my situation.
What you describe reminds me of my feeling of being stuck in between two worlds (that is the non-cancer and the cancer worlds). I feel I am dealing with multiple identities to be able to adjust to each world the best way that I can.
Thank you for reading and for the comment, Carrie.
whatever world it is, it’s disorienting. no me gusta.
Ni a mi.
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I miss the luxury of thinking cancer could not happen to me–sigh. Great post!!
I’ve tried to get it back but I can’t. Sad.
Thank you for commenting.
I miss my old carefree life. It’s one of the things I grieve for most. I find it really amazing that despite bad things happening to people all the time, we are pre-conditioned to think ‘it’ll never happen to me’. Now that I’ve been struck with cancer, that has shifted to ‘why wouldn’t it happen to me’ and I have become a catastrophist!
Exactly! That was a good way to put it: a catastrophist. This is also a defense mechanism we’ve built for ourselves so not to be fooled again. I remember whenever I heard bad news I would never think it would happen to me. Now I think I could be next (a familiar feeling I get with stage 4).
Thank you for commenting! xx
This post is so beautifully written. And I relate to every word. xo
Thank you for reading and commenting, Eileen. xo
Beautiful, raw, honest post! Yes, I was in denial during my 30s when I had a tumor growing inside of my breast. Thought I would live a long life and not be dealing with cancer, of all diseases. That denial ended with diagnosis. And coping after cancer has been a rough road, especially when people just expect me to move on. Nobody counted on me having so many emotional and psychological issues. Here’s one of my posts that defies the “moving on” ideology: http://bethgainer.com/matter-over-mind/
Beth, survivorship is so challenging and part of it is because we’ve lost a sense of our denial. It sucks, doesn’t it? I am glad we are still here, don’t want to sound ungrateful, of course. It’s a different life post cancer. I am afraid we could never become who we were. The comforting part of all this though, is that we are not alone.
Thank you for sharing your post. I am looking forward to reading it. And thank you for your comment too.
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