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Adams, B. (1996). Cancer journal: emotional triage. Free Associations, 6(4):551-567.

(1996). Free Associations, 6(4):551-567

Cancer journal: emotional triage

Barbara Adams


When we first found out about my husband's lung cancer, two friends gave us Bernie Siegel's books and tapes, with his ‘think-positive-feel-good-and-you'll-get-better’ approach to cancer. El listened to the Siegel tapes and gave up after ten minutes, while I leafed through the book. Siegel's approach reminded me of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking, blaming the victim. What happened to El had nothing to do with thinking negative thoughts. He kept his wonderful sense of humor and was cracking jokes, in a cracked voice, up to two days before he died.

While blaming the victim, Siegel also fails to address the nurse/spouse's anguish, and anger at having her life put on hold. This problem is also ignored by most doctors treating the cancer patient. I did all I could to help my husband stay alive, but I wanted the torture of his body to end—not only to stop his suffering, but also to allow me to get back to my own life. I wasn't sick, I thought selfishly. When I first spoke to Dr. R., a psychologist at Sloan Kettering, I did not know why I felt so guilty. I just wanted to get back to normal life. I had failed to save El's life, but so had his doctors. Did they feel guilty as I? I know now that I was suffering survivor's guilt. I had no appetite and couldn't sleep until Dr. R. gave me a drug. Somehow, my body said that if El couldn't eat anymore, why should I? If I stayed awake, my vigilance would keep Death at bay.

I know that El had the best available treatment for lung cancer, but it was already too late when the tumor was discovered.

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