State of Denial
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Coping With Denial

There are two main kinds of copers: monitors and blunters, says clinical and health psychologist Suzanne Miller, the director of the Psychosocial and Behavioral Medicine Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Monitors are tuned in to...

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By Jenny Song

State of Denial

It’s not necessarily good or bad to cope this way

By Jenny Song


When Elizabeth Edwards announced in March that her breast cancer had metastasized, but that her husband, John, would continue seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, some in the media criticized the couple’s decision. In a 60 Minutes interview, Katie Couric asked the question on the minds of many in the country: Was Edwards in denial over her situation and being unrealistic about the challenge that lay ahead?

To her credit, Edwards replied: “I think that it is our intention to deny cancer any control over us. And though I know there are people who live short lives, I feel optimistic, not because I’ve got rose-colored glasses on, but because I know that I have only ... a small amount of cancer in my bones.”

Edwards’ situation sheds light on an issue that many cancer survivors face: the stigma of denial.

“Since Freud, denial has generally had a very bad connotation,” says clinical and health psychologist Suzanne Miller, who is the director of the Psychosocial and Behavioral Medicine Program at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. “For Freud, denial was a very primitive, child-like way of coping with any kind of threat; and there are clinicians and scientists who brought that theme into the cancer and health arena.”

The thing is, denial itself is neither good nor bad. Denial is a mechanism that the mind uses to protect itself from uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, says psychiatrist Terry Rabinowitz, a professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington, who published a study on understanding denial in cancer patients in the March 2006 issue of Cancer Investigation.



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