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.