In the beginning, we heard everything the doctors said and read all the information on the kind of cancer my husband had. The word “terminal,” kept showing up, but we filtered that out. It didn’t make sense to us. We thought that if they could just blast those cancer cells to the moon with chemo, radiation—anything, then he would be okay. This myth only grew more solidified in our minds with each improved scan. When we saw the treatment was working, we thought there must be a chance he could beat the cancer. We were in denial.
Nearly 9 months in, he was NED (no evidence of disease).
Did the treatment work? Was his cancer gone? When I asked his doctor about it, directly, she explained his cancer was stage IV metastatic from the start. Metastatic cancer, especially aggressive lung cancer, doesn’t go away.
She was right. Those cells were swimming laps in his bloodstream and had reached all sorts of places in his body. Eventually, this included his brain. Even though there were times when the cancer was under control and undetectable with a CT scan, it was temporary. When the drug he was on stopped working, cancer would again progress. He would try a new drug. Even if it worked, eventually, the cancer would again progress. It’s a cycle that would continue…until it didn’t.
Even knowing this, each time Dan did well on a given treatment, we found ourselves in a sort of denial. We knew, logically, that he was on borrowed time, but emotionally, we managed to trick ourselves into thinking we could go on forever like this. You could even hear it in our language. We would talk about the children our younger daughters would one day have, and how we would babysit them. Always “we.” We would talk about being empty-nesters, changes we’d make to the house. Things we would do as we grew old together.
Then, Dan would get a bad scan result
This meant it was time for a new treatment, and that he was one step closer to death. We would be shocked. Every time we were surprised.
A period of denial is a temporary coping mechanism. It can occur whenever you feel threatened, emotionally or physically. Denial helps us to absorb the shock of reality. It keeps you from falling apart, psychologically. Then, once you are able to handle the distressing news, you can acknowledge that it’s real and approach it rationally.
Continued denial can take a temporarily healthy way of coping and make it dangerous. A common example is gaining so much weight that you no longer want to stand on a scale. The problem only continues to worsen. In the cancer world, continued denial can lead to not treating the cancer. You ignore the lump, say the doctor is wrong, and the cancer progresses.
Once you acknowledge the physical side of cancer, you have to take an honest look at the entire situation from all angles. You have to assess and protect the health of the patient as well as the effects of the cancer on the patient’s loved ones. Sometimes as parents, we assume our children will be fine. While that may be true, things will come up that need a watchful eye and must be handled with a tender hand.
Moving Past Persistent Denial
Feeling secure is essential to be able to move past persistent denial. Let your child know that they can talk to you or another trusted adult. This will go a long way toward helping them accept that, like it or not, life is changing. This is tough for adults and even harder for a child. Helping them to feel secure, and knowing they’ll be cared for no matter what will allow them to accept that painful changes are taking place in their life.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS?
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In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.
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I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker