Am I in denial just emotionally healthy regarding my diagnosis?

8 answers | Last updated: Jun 15, 2013
A fellow caregiver asked...

After talking with other cancer patients, I feel like something is wrong with me. I am 55 years old and was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in August. I had a lumpectomy to remove two 1+cm tumors and 3 lymph nodes which were negative. I am HER2 negative. The think is, I have no feelings or anger or "why me". I don't worry about dying because I don't think I will for a while, and I've had a very blessed life. I feel fortunate that I didn't get lung cancer instead because I smoked for 30 years. All my friends and other cancer patients I know are in a great deal of emotional turmoil about this. Am I in denial, or just emotionally healthy?

Expert Answers

Kenneth Robbins, M.D., is a senior medical editor of He is board certified in psychiatry and internal medicine, has a master's in public health from the University of Michigan, and is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His current clinical practice focuses primarily on geriatrics. He has written and contributed to many articles and is frequently invited to speak on psychiatric topics, such as psychiatry and the law, depression, anxiety, dementia, and suicide risk and prevention.

I am afraid I don't know you well enough to give you a definitive answer to that question, but it sounds like it may very well be an emotionally healthy response. Fortunately, your prognosis is very good, so there is good reason for optimism. Even if your prognosis wasn't great, one could argue that since you have little control over what happens, the best strategy is to remain positive and go about living your life.

With all that said, I would also suggest you monitor your emotional condition more closely than usual. It requires you to be a scientist and keep track of how you are responding to your environment. If you find you are responding differently than you have in the past, it is important data to have. For example, if you find you are more irritable, more angry, more isolative or more sad than you had been in the past, it would suggest your emotional response to the cancer diagnosis is more severe than you had been aware. If that is the case, I would suggest you consult with a mental health professional to help you manage your emotional reaction.

Community Answers

A fellow caregiver answered...

I was diagnosed almost 2 years ago with stage 3 breast cancer at age 49. No history to suggest I was at high risk. I proceeded with a bilateral mastectomy and then chemotherapy for 4 months. Unfortunately I am still dealing with chemotherapy's side effects. HOWEVER: I have never once said or thought "why me", but rather why not me. I have lived a full, happy life and while I would like to remain on Earth for many years still to experience and share memories with families and friends, I know we all will pass on to our eternal life at some time. I actually feel blessed to have gotten this disease (although I do struggle with the side effects sometimes) because it has made me slow down and look at what's really important in life. I am glad to hear that others have had this same response to being given the news of the big "C" word...cancer can be life altering in a good way too. I do say though I question "why kids"...that just doesn't seem fair to me. God bless you and may he keep your heart peaceful :0)

Stitchymom answered...

I am a stage 3 survivor. When I was first diagnosed, I did not think that it was as serious as it was. I have gone through a year and a half of chemotherapy. My friends were very angry with me for saying things like, "I have cancer now. Give me the dessert!" We all have different ways of dealing with things, and at the time I felt that that was the way I could deal. You cannot change the fact that you have cancer, but to worry and put yourself in a little box is not the answer. It is the worry that has been shown to negatively affect cancer treatment and its' return. A positive outlook is the only way to win. Think of all one misses by being mired in self pity.

Beatbreastcancer answered...

You bet! I was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer, hormone sensitive, in 2007, 4 days before my 46th birthday. While I was in shock and fear in the beginning, after awhile I just felt, do your best to live, but live your best from day to day. I, too, never felt "why me?", but "why not me?". Lots of people get cancer, what makes me better than anyone else? Keeping a sense of humor helps you deal with everything associated with the visible signs of fighting cancer; why not have dessert first?!? I have my family to live for, besides everything I have to do yet; I've always intended to fight the cancer with everything I have. That being said, you never know how shock can affect you, so yes, keep an eye on your mental and emotional health. Keep it real, and keep laughing! It IS the best medicine!

Lizzieb answered...

I think yours is a very healthy response, but I do agree with what the doctor said. I was diagnosed with stage 3 lobular (no lump) breast cancer three years ago, went through chemo, radiation and still have some issues relating to chemo-brain and taxol feet. In the beginning I was offered and refused psychological counseling. I just didn't feel I needed it as I never felt 'why me' and definitely no anger and just wanted to get on with the healing process. However, when the surgeon suggested I have breast reduction between chemo and radiation, I fell apart. I couldn't cope with the idea of going under the knife again and, more importantly, I suddenly had issues with self image. I have always had large breasts and never thought about breast reduction. The surgeon suggested I might end up lopsided that would affect my spine and gait. I was a mess. I picked up the phone and asked for a counselor. Today, (I am 65 yrd old) I still have one breast half the size of the other and am a bit lopsided, but I got shoes made to counterbalance and it doesn't bother me. Getting a counselor, however, was the best thing that happened to me. Not only did she help me put the cancer experience into perspective, but also to lay to rest some serious issues from my past. So, like the doctor said, don't stress on your present reaction, just deal with whatever comes up during your journey. I actually kept a blog, but I am not sure I can advertise it on this site. Just let me say that writing about how you feel is also a great therapy.

Mindgardener answered...

I'm sorry you have cancer. It seems there are more and more of us. I have Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, and I say, if you feel alive to the world and nature and people you love, if you feel healthy in spirit, you probably are.
I also never went through Why Me? Have had breast cancer now for 15 years. While I wouldn't wish it on anyone, it has been yet another wake-up call (how many did I need? Lots, evidently) to live life fully and to value minutes sifting down the hourglass. I finally followed my passion and quit work (went on disability) to write.

I'm grateful. I think it was Sheryl Crow who said when she got cancer she 'fell into joy.' I understand, I have gratitude for this life--for my husband, friends, a spiritual community, for being alive on this incredible, wounded planet.

A HUGE help to me was joining a WELLNESS COMMUNITY, a feww national network of walk-in centers for people with cancer (free, staffed by professionals, a national network with websites). At The Wellness Community I found fellowship in a a community of people walking this path--no explanations needed!

I met new friends at TWC--people with cancer from all walks of life--loving, funny, bright people walking the same paths, a (plus TWC has groups for your loved ones and caregivers). I should say I'm not staff or even a volunteer at TWC -- just a person with cancer whose life is much richer for this group.

After my first BC diagnosis 15 years ago, I went on living my life--had lumpectomy, radiation (no follow-up drugs then). Like you, I didn't ask "Why me?" and felt lucky to be surrounded by dear women friends who accepted me, wherever I was.

Re. your question. You can be healthy and not ready to go deeper, too. Sometimes things also take awhile to sink in. That's fine-- I suspect if you are asking "Am I in denial?" that you're NOT. People in denial don't usually ask this question, as they are not ready for more information. And even if you are, denial has its uses, too--denial protects your spirit and emotions and mind when what's happening is too much to take in at the moment. It offers rest.

When and if you need to feel other feelings, sounds like you are open and aware--so they will emerge when you are ready.

Trust yourself, trust your feelings, find a couple of friends who can listen and be honest. Find a support network. Find a good oncologist to follow you, one who can listen and care.

This cancer has opened my heart more. I'm so aware that everyone has a story--the grocery clerk, my neighbors I don't know yet; everyone carries something. I'm in awe of the grace with which some people carry burdons and still seem joyful. I love hearing their stories. We all need listeners, though many never will ask, unless YOU ask them how it is for them. For me, listening brings joy and a sense of together in human community. Since cancer, I've been surprised by joy, more often than not. Blake wrote, "Kiss the joy as it flies." Acceptance is not denial, nor is it giving up. It is accepting what is. Life is short, but it's wide-enjoy.

Courtneyll answered...

I dont think your in denial at all I was diagnosed 26 days after my 30th birthday with stage III grade III tumors that had spread. I was the healthest I had ever been in my whole life with no risk factors. So it was def a punch in the stomach. I had 6 months of hard chemo then a double mastecomty and rt sided lymph removal. I had bad far and few between, I to for awhile thought maybe I was in denial but nope I knew what was going on and knew what I had to do. I think a big part of this is what you said I didnt feel as if I was going to die, I was more worried about the side effects.....losing my hair wow now that hurt!!!! Some people just deal with things different I will worry and all upset about the small things but I have always handled the big things with an erie calmness. So good luck to you!!! Keep the great attitude!!! Sending prayers your way!!!!

Wonder444 answered...

I thought I was the only one that responded that way with having a dx of aggressive bc. I have never shed a tear over the lost of my right breast and later the left. I was just over joyed to still be alive. Since the first surgery was radical, reconstruction was not an option.

Do I feel any less of a woman . . . no. I was only 42 when I had the first surgery. The male co-workers were really great and made those early days less stressful upon returning to work. The females was another story. Their first question was are you going to have reconstruction? Not how are you doing, can I help in any way? Some women have a hard time facing their fears of this disease and don't seem to want to be reminded that it could have been them.

Now I can select the size boobs I have always wanted. Living in a senior apartment complex my girls are perky compared to others. (Always looking for the positive in every negative life event.) This is not to say that I am thrilled over it all but I am thrilled about finding out how strong I was then and now.

Am I always in an up mood? No, but I do choose what is important in my life, my son, and deal as well as possible with the rest. So, in my opinion your response is much like mine. My then doctor told me that I had a very positive outlook which would help in my fight. Outlook may perhaps be 50% and fight (I am a bit stubborn LOL) the other 50% in my case. But 100% of this fight is really in God's hands, as it should be.