February 12, 2023

Have You Ever Experienced Denial?


Two years into my cancer experience, I still had the nagging question: “Am I in denial?” I heard that cancer patients protect themselves in a natural bubble of denial in order to cope. Eventually that bubble bursts and you start dealing with the reality of your newly altered life. My bubble never burst. I never felt myself cross a threshold from denial to reality. I waited and waited, even tried to provoke it. Finally I realized it wasn’t happening because I was never in denial to begin with.

The first 24 hours after my diagnosis, I felt shock.  I dreaded calling my mom and dad to tell them I had cancer. I went to class that night like nothing was wrong. I took my teacher aside afterwords and said, “Hey I was just diagnosed with cancer so I might need to go to a few doctors appointments.” But the next morning I woke up and it just sank in. I have cancer. I have cancer. I have cancer. It was a really profound experience to feel those words being absorbed into my mind. I felt extremely compelled to keep my eyes wide open and walk forward. I didn’t want to push cancer away.  I accepted it into my life immediately.

I think part of the reason why I couldn’t be in denial is because I had nobody else to take care of me or to fight for me to get health insurance.  Not always, but sometimes, denial is a luxury.   In small doses, denial seems like a benefit, a nice place to visit. It was a bitch to have cancer on my shoulder 24-7 and I wouldn’t have minded dwelling in denial a bit to get a mental health vacation from it all.

So why not denial 24-7 instead of the bitch of cancer?  Denial can pose a serious risk if it keeps you from getting medical care, from meeting the reality of your needs, or if it severs relationships with people who are walking in the real world.

Maybe that’s why there’s a lot of judgment placed on the word denial: “You’re so in denial!” (Who ever says that in a kind tone of voice?)  People are accused of being in denial.   The word stings and has a bad rap.   Should it?

Have you ever felt like you were in denial? Did it serve you well? Have other people accused you of being in denial ?

Want to read an outstanding tale of denial?  Check out Malignant and Indignant, a chapter in Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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