My Psychological Response to a Cancer Diagnosis


I have a confession: I daydreamed of a “last hurrah” should my cancer treatment not work.

Cartoon drawing of AML survivor and blogger, Mary Sansone

I believe that my brain subconsciously decided to find a shining light when I got diagnosed with a recurrence of acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Rather than the neurons going crazy over a possible death, speedy synapses in the neocortex and thalamus positioned imagination as the lead actor in the psyche cast.

“This may be an opportunity!” 

If the bone marrow transplant was unsuccessful, and the end was imminent, I wondered if I would be healthy enough to have a last hurrah. I wouldn’t have to worry about my meager IRAs and investments carrying me through after retirement. I had a pretty good reason to splurge.

This lucid daydream popped into my head quickly after diagnosis. I call this a confession, even though it was clearly a coping mechanism. Did anyone else do this?

I didn’t tell anyone about my wandering mind; I felt that it would disturb them. But I allowed myself to scour the internet to find hidden-journey-gems in exotic locales. I had folders of different destinations that included amazing places to stay, incredible activities, first class airfare costs and more.

Was this delusional?

I want to be clear: my heart sunk when I first learned that my AML came back and that I would be getting a bone marrow transplant. The pain was at its worst when I shared the news with loved ones. Their quality of life would change too as caregivers and loving worriers.But miraculously I speedily jumped to designing an epic journey.

We all hear about the common reactions to a cancer diagnosis: anxiety, depression, sadness, anger, loss, maybe denial. But our beautiful magical brains may help us by flicking on the imagination lightbulbs. In my case, the private jet taking me to see safaris and marine excursions fed the joy receptors. I needed that.

Some may say that this distraction was a reflection of a giver-upper. But let me break it down: My preoccupied vacation-planning mind put me in a better emotional state. This welcome respite from depression taught me that I could feel positive during tough times through imagination. I liked being positive. I started to do other creative things that would make me feel positive, like writing and painting. Eventually, the desire to feel positive resulted in my will to live.

The bone marrow transplant was successful, and I was elated!

I of course realized that my outlandish trip options were irresponsible pipedreams.

Or were they?

Many tell me, “You of all people should know that life is short, and we should live out our dreams.”

I stayed mostly positive during my treatment. The goal now is to continue pursuits that bring me happiness. I don’t want to be a melancholy survivor. Even though I responsibly try to build my retirement fund, I also contribute to the “joy fund.” These deposits are not only in dollars and cents; time spent with loved ones adds to the eminent memory bank.

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