Reactions to Diagnosis

Dr. Wirtz explains how difficult it can be to communicate with others about your health and why talking with your loved ones is so important.

During the past several weeks I've been writing a lot about communication and the factors that influence it. The topic is so interesting and complex that I could write about different facets of it for months and only begin to scratch the surface. When you think about the many ways in which we communicate, both verbal and non-verbal, there's a lot to look at.

A few months ago, a colleague of mine asked me if I would write a piece on what happens to a person when they get diagnosed with cancer that makes them not want to talk about their circumstances. I apologize to her for taking so long to get around to this topic and hope this will be helpful in some way.

There are so many potential answers to this question that there's no way to know which one might fit for her family member. However, the reason that comes to mind first is the power of saying something out loud. I have heard many clients tell me that it is one thing to think something quietly and another to actually put the thoughts into words and say them out loud for someone else to hear. For some people the upsetting or scary matter doesn't become "real" until they say something about it out loud to another person. In some ways, it is an admission that you believe it rather than just think it, and that can be much scarier.

It is also in the process of saying something aloud that we often really get connected to the feelings that we have about what's going on. Have you ever heard someone say "I'm O.K. until I start talking about it and then I can't stop crying?" Well, I think that's because the words are a direct pipeline of sorts to our thoughts and feelings. So, if you really don't want anyone to see how frightened, sad, angry, etc. you are, you might be able to keep the flood gates closed simply by not talking about the matter.

In a similar fashion, the person may not want to speak about what's going on because they fear being totally over run by their own feelings. Over the course of my career I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say "I'm afraid to let myself cry because I'm afraid I won't stop." Now, to my knowledge, no one has ever started crying and not stopped. In fact, it's not physiologically possible, but it sure can feel like the pain and sadness is so deep that it will never be tapped off.

I'm going to come back to this topic next week so if you have thoughts of your own that you might like to share, please pass them on.