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When the Psychologist Is Also the Patient

A speaker chooses between being honest with her audience and protecting it.

When I was contacted about giving a workshop on managing the fear of recurrence at a conference of breast cancer survivors, I knew I would have a lot to offer. As a psycho-oncologist and breast cancer survivor myself, I could talk both from the heart and brain. Little did I know that I would have even more to offer than that.

Two months before the workshop, I was diagnosed with a recurrence myself. Fortunately, it was a local recurrence, and, with radiation therapy and a change of medication, my odds of overall survival were still good. But so were my odds of never having a recurrence, when I was first diagnosed.  When the recurrence was first found, I immediately thought of the workshop. I was glad I still had two months to prepare, because there was no way I’d be able to talk lucidly about coping while I was still reeling myself. Once I re-learned to cope, though, I knew I could still do a good job.

But what to do about the information that I had just suffered a recurrence myself? Wouldn’t that be scary to an audience that wanted to feel safe? On the other hand, the reason I’d been invited was precisely because I wrote so honestly about my own personal experience with the illness in addition to my professional experiences. It would feel dishonest to withhold my newer diagnosis.

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As the date for the workshop drew nearer, I knew I needed to be open. It was simply who I was. I decided to also tell the audience that my odds of survival were very good, as that might make the news less scary. I would remind them, as I learned myself, that recurrence doesn’t necessarily mean that treatment failed permanently. Many women go on never to hear from their cancers again.  I had everything all figured out to make my recurrence more toerable.

But there was one thing I hadn’t counted on. My assumption about my audience was totally wrong; I had given them too little credit. They could handle my news just fine, and often laughed along with me at the funny parts. Some of them were already dealing with recurrences themselves. And my little fix—to tell them about my great odds—wasn’t a fix at all. What about the women in the audience who didn’t have particularly heartening statistics for comfort?  I hadn’t even thought of them until the Q-and-A session, when one woman in her 40s tearfully brought up her own recurrence and the sense of terror it inspired in her.

I wished I could promise her all would be fine. The fact was that she might indeed end up perfectly fine in the end. If we have to enter Cancerland, we could do worse than dealing with the best researched cancer in the world. But, as in life in general, I could give no guarantees, only some kind words, some exercises I’d learned during the course of my work, and the lessons I’d learned the hard way, just like everyone else there. And she asked for no more than that.

For a podcast of the workshop, Managing the Fear of Recurrence, click here.

 

Click here for my book (one of O: The Oprah Magazine's 10 Titles to Pick Up in May; with Foreword by New York Times columnist David Brooks): The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities—about the sad, hilarious and meaningful ways we deal with the crises in our lives. 

 

Image credit: http://shingles-symptoms.biz/shingles-treatment/

 

Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D., is a psycho-oncologist and author of The House on Crash Corner and Other Unavoidable Calamities.

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