Cancer Denial Can Be Our Friend


Denial gets a bad name, but it helps us manage the news a little at a time.

Denial gets a bad name. We hear it a lot. “She’s in denial,” which means not facing reality.

I was reminded how much I like denial when I recently met a newly diagnosed woman who could only repeat, "It will be fine. It will be fine," when no one asked her a question.

Maybe or maybe not. She was holding her baby in her arms and her husband was trying to corral their 3-year-old. He looked like he had been crying. They were leaving the medical center when I ran into them, so the news must have been very recent.

Was she in denial? Sure. Otherwise, she would have sat down on the floor of the doctor's office and told everyone to leave her alone.

Our body provides wonderful ways to save us from jumping off bridges. Denial is one.

In the hours and days after my diagnosis, denial was the only thing that kept me going. For me, denial meant not absorbing the facts of my diagnosis all at once. I’m sure it was my body’s way of protecting me by shutting down the big picture to help me get through the day.

Imagine if you will a funnel. We put a lot in the top, and as it moves to smaller and smaller area, it is sorted and the big stuff becomes something more manageable before it comes out the other end.

I had a baby to raise, a job and a teenager at home. Always able to multitask in the past, I remember my husband reminding me to breathe during the days after the diagnosis. We had begun the myriad of phone calls to friends and doctors.

I can remember thinking about something I needed to do, and then, as I added the little pieces of reality around cancer, it would become overwhelming so I would just shut down. I like to think of it as when you turn on a hair dryer and blow a circuit. There was too much on my circuit.

And we call it denial. “Breathe,” I’d be reminded, and the inhalation would kick-start my life again.

Without denial keeping it to manageable pieces, my heart may have stopped altogether.

I do remember a few times when I had to stop doing something and think about my reality. Cancer, I have cancer. This can’t be. I can’t die. I have a husband and a baby and a life.

Shut down.


Everything will be fine, just fine.

Denial — and life goes on another little piece at a time.

I remember one instance when a friend at church stopped to ask how I was. It was early in the process and the word cancer had just been introduced. I recall rather calmly telling him that I knew at that point that the surgeon said the star-shaped place on the mammogram had an 85 percent chance of malignancy.

"The second surgeon said he thought it was a 95 percent chance of being cancer," I said. I even think I laughed when I said I decided to stop asking.

I’m sure he told someone I was in denial.

You bettcha.

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