Rodney Warner, JD
Rodney Warner, JD

She was desperate. I remember she was a middle aged woman with dark hair. I think she was still wearing a coat long after the rest of us took ours off.

I was attending a blood cancer support group at Gilda’s Club Delaware Valley. We had an unusually good turn out that night. I can vaguely remember about ten of us being there, including my friend, Jay, and the group facilitator, Kelly.

I don’t know how she got to the meeting, or who convinced her to come. She wasn’t comfortable, despite being in Gilda’s homelike environs and surrounded by people dealing with blood cancer, in one form or another, one stage or another, past or present.

She told us her story. I remember her talking about fevers so high, she couldn’t sleep in her bed. She slept on her dining room floor. She told us about how much time she had to take off from work, and how that was causing her problems. She talked about seeing doctors, getting a cancer diagnosis and being told there was no treatment for what she had and the disease was going to kill her.

She told us she couldn’t have cancer and this couldn’t be happening to her. One reason was that she had too many things to do. At one point in the meeting, I asked her to repeat what kind of cancer she had because it seemed unusual to me that there was no treatment at all for what she had. She just stared at me, not saying a word. It was like if the name of the cancer came out of her mouth, it would give the cancer more reality, more power over her life.

Several of us suggested she get a second opinion and even gave her names of specific doctors to see. Many of us, myself included, had been wrongly told we were helpless cases. We all tried to be supportive and comforting, but I felt this woman was not really fully grounded in reality. There are times in our lives when we need a warm cup of tea to settle us down and other times when we need cold water thrown in our face to wake us up. The meeting was coming to a close, so I told her what no one else had that night. I told her until she recognizes she has a problem, it’ll never get better. Running away from a problem doesn’t make it go away.

I never saw the woman again. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead. Maybe she was right, maybe she was misdiagnosed and really didn’t have cancer.

I would guess everyone diagnosed with cancer was in denial, to some degree, at one point or another. Before my diagnosis, for nearly two years, I had very high fevers, like clockwork, every three months. I was in my 30’s and otherwise in good health. It wasn’t until I became utterly exhausted (along with other symptoms) did it occur to me there might be something seriously wrong with me. Before that point, why didn’t I stop to think, it’s not normal for a person to be like this, I really need to stop and have someone check this out! Was I in denial, or just being a moron, I don’t know.

How many of us diagnosed at late stages (like I was) could’ve, or should’ve, been diagnosed much sooner, and treated with far fewer problems and side effects and with greater success, if not for the powerful spell that denial can have over us? We get so much comfort from our efforts to organize our lives, the fact something might come along and throw our lives into chaos, and possibly kill us at an age far younger than we ever imagined, can be so terrifying that’s it’s too scary to even think about.

But we have to think about it. If not, for those unwilling or unable to recognize and prepare for the coming storm, whose official cause of death was cancer, how many were actually killed by denial?

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