The Middle Ground

The creative way to enriching your relationship.

A Family Copes with Cancer

The Stress of Surgery

world famous hospital

world famous hospital

Beth has undergone exploratory colon surgery. The physician gave no assurance that the malignancy had been entirely removed. The doctor’s message of uncertainty, delivered in soothing tones, rained terror down on Beth.

Her grown children, Roger and Alana, both with families of their own, trudged to the cafe next door to the world-famous medical center. There they sipped weak coffee and pecked at dry corn muffins. “She’s going to be fine,” Alana said. Roger nodded. His sister’s face reflected in the tablespoon was wide and squat, unrecognizable. “We’ll see,” he mumbled.

Later that evening Chester, Beth’s husband of forty-six years, slumps against the arm of the couch. He stares vacantly at the book that lays face down on his lap. As if the calico cat could comprehend, Chester directs guttural tones towards the patter of paws, “If she had not gotten sick we would, at this moment, be far away.”

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He was referring to the vacation they had planned for months. He had invested himself in making the trip happen. Now that she was ill, plans had splattered like an egg across his windshield.

“Of course,” his thoughts continued, “she hadn’t meant to mess things up. She hadn’t intended to get cancer. Nobody intends something like that.” But he couldn’t pretend to be happy about any of it. The longer he thought things over the cooler his coffee got. He pushed himself up, kicked the cat from his path and dumped his cup down the drain.

Chester rattled on. How do these doctors go to school forever, get certificates and licenses to practice in order to prepare for not being able to tell us what’s happening? How can that be?


calico cat

calico cat

So many tests! And what do we find out from all of it is that the mysterious ailment is a mystery!

His mother had distrusted doctors. He recalled that well. She liked to say she avoided them like the plagues they couldn’t cure.

Roger lobbied passionately for Chester to give their mother undivided attention and concern. And spend more time with her.

Roger sensed Chester’s disorientation and understood that – as far as Roger’s relationship with Beth was concerned – there had been a tacit understanding: she’d do everything she could to assure him his comforts and pleasures.

Chester’s happiness was essential to her happiness.

Roger got that Chester was used to this balance of concern in their relationship.

But new developments signaled the need for change.

Roger was having a hard time being in the same room with his dad. Roger asked himself, ‘Is a man responsible for the consequences he can’t see or understand that he is causing? Is it normal to be that selfish?’

Before his mother’s illness, he had thought of his relationship with his father as good. If their relationship was good, was this-kind-of-good a sham? A stand-in for real?

In Roger’s words, “I imagined that if a situation came up like this my dad could be counted on to ‘Be there’ for mom. Just like I would expect him to ‘Be there’ for me and my family. I’m sick with disappointment.”

Roger, 43 years old, had a boy and girl, ages 7 and 5, and had been married for a decade himself.

Alana, Roger’s younger sister, was also upset about what was going on with their father. She wanted him to be more attentive to Beth and to take initiative to make sure she got the care she needed. But she also felt sympathetic towards him. “If he allowed himself to fully appreciate how serious her medical situation was he would fall apart,” she thought. She told Roger she was disappointed in their dad but felt that he would come around soon.

She felt Chester was the kind of person who invested so much of himself in the kind of planning that had gone into the trip that it was harder than it would be for the average person to change gears and let go of his excitement. But when she heard herself thinking this she had a realization: her logic was ludicrous because the trip meant nothing. Chester’s shifting away from thinking about the trip would require him to snap out of the denial-mindset in which he was stuck. That was the problem.

The father and two adult children showed up in my office looking for a way to regain family unity.

By that time Chester and Roger were not talking and Alana was tearful and angry. She accused both men of selfishness.

“How can you allow yourself the luxury of fighting against each other when mom is so sick and worried. Doesn’t that make you want to pull yourselves together and figure out how to make it as good as we can for her?”

What happens next is an example of ways in which family therapy can help family members bring out the best in one another. I will outline it in the next blog post.

In the meantime I’d be very interested in your predictions about what might happen next in this situation.  Feel free to comment, question, discuss your own experiences if you have been in a similar situation and would like to share.

Remember, love and good feelings are plentiful yet elusive; I'll be around to help you locate them in the Middle Ground.


Marty Babits is Co-Director of Family and Couples Treatment Service, a division of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City.


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