Emotional Shock: The First Two Months

Thursday, October 24, 2019
Pasadena, California

Emotional Shock: The First Two Months

The most shocking thing about a tragic situation is the way life seems to go on,

said my cherished friend and colleague, Helen.

She’s well aware of Jill’s unfolding cancer situation.

Helen’s insight is spot on.

Somehow, I imagined convening a room filled with Jill’s family, friends, and colleagues. Food would be delivered.

We’d engage in ongoing, deeply meaningful discussions of what’s occurring.

Instead, and in stark contrast, everyone is going on with their lives.

Jill herself, still awaiting a treatment plan (due before month’s end), has returned to work, as has her husband. The children are attending school as usual. All other involved parties are living their lives.

It seems strange.

In my last two posts, I described how those in similar situations might be respond to emotionally painful traumas like this one. You can zap over to those here:



Meanwhile, I update you on the Jill situation, describe how we’re all reacting, and suggest how those facing similar trauma might cope.

Although no primary tumor has yet been discovered, the working diagnosis is a rather serious one:

Non-small-cell-adenocarcinoma of the lung, stage 4.

Why stage 4?

Because the cancer was first discovered in her brain where metastases had spread. That means cancer, originating somewhere else, presumably the lungs, has passed through the lymph system into the brain or, maybe, elsewhere.

In a wonderfully positive development, the brain lesions were successfully treated with five days of focused radiation treatment.

I saw Jill the day of her last treatment.

She looked and acted just fine. No side effects. You’d have no idea of the presence of a life-threatening illness from gazing at or speaking with her.

The medical oncology group is now reviewed tissue samples, looking for genetic mutations or other indicators to guide treatment decisions. We expect the next step to include a range of options including surgery (to remove tumors), radiation, chemotherapy and/or immunotherapy.

Perhaps a bizarre analogy, but the reactions during those first few days and weeks seems rather like the exact opposite of falling in love.

When you fall in love, you experience a wonderful, psychotic-like feeling of ecstasy. Your beloved is fantastic. You are perfect when with him. You cannot believe your good luck at finding him. You eagerly anticipate meals, walks, trips, lovemaking, and more. You wake up thinking of him, fantasize about him all day, and fall asleep with him on your mind.

The emotional reaction to the sudden, shocking trauma in Jill’s life has been all-consuming in a weirdly similar way. Your mind is filled with awful fantasies of potentially tragic outcomes. You worry about the impact on immediate family members as well as friends and colleagues. Images of your own mortality dance before your eyes, leaving you wondering when illness, injury, or some other calamity will strike you.

The obsessive nature of the reaction began changing within the first week of the diagnosis. The fantasies became more nuanced. They included a broader range of positive and negative possibilities. The loving bond between the involved parties provided support, lessening the intensity of the pain. There was a feeling of the group of us walking this painful road together.

What a strange comparison but, indeed, the evolving situation reminds me of how the initial rush of intense love similarly transitions into shades of gray.

Depending on the parties, the state of being in-love lasts somewhere between six weeks and six months.

Then comes the inevitable disillusionment.

Basically, you realize the presence of things you dislike about the other party.

The initial shine of your togetherness becomes tarnished.

Sometimes the meals, weekends, trips, or lovemaking are still awesome.

Sometimes they are just ok.

Sometimes they are lousy.

If you’re lucky, the in-love period moves into a lasting intimate relationship peppered with the usual ups and downs of life, the usual ambivalences we all experience towards events and things in our lives. As long as it remains good enough, you stay engaged.

It’s not exactly ambivalence that’s entered Jill’s cancer situation.

It’s more the realization that nothing immediately bad is happening—save the scary diagnosis. The comfort provided by the frequent communication between the parties and the various physicians involved continues.

But other things start to mix it up.

Are the plans for the Holidays still progressing per usual?

It seems so.

How are the children doing?

They’re fine.

What do you think of the impeachment process?

I wish they’d dump the corrupt bastard already.

And, did you catch the latest episode of HBO’s Succession?

Not yet. 

Man, you’ve got to see it! It’s Shakespearean.


Just now, I mean, right this second while writing this sentence, I got a text advising me that a PET scan of Jill’s entire body failed to reveal any further masses—definitely a positive development.


Well, see, ya never know.

Nonetheless, how do you cope with such scary life situations, specifically once they hit the multiple-month-in mark.

The best advice, and also the most difficult, is to strive to live every moment to its fullest.

I FULLY UNDERSTAND how that’s easier said than done.

(I will soon post on precisely this topic).

But it’s inarguable. Most mental pain comes from fantasyland, namely images of past (now gone) or future (unknown).

Seek out and soak up emotional support from others. It’s a divine experience. Cliche or not, it completely and totally helps.

And, make sure to remain curious about and humbled by the magnitude of our ignorance.

If you could research the contents of all the libraries in the world, or read the entirety of the internet, you still could not tell what’s going to happen tomorrow.

The timing of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989 surprised scholars in international relations, diplomats, intelligence services, and think tanks.

You’d think they would have known.

They did not.

With all the recent talk of climate change—definitely worrisome—few seem to be discussing the thousands of thermo-nuclear warheads Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, England, France and the US have pointing at each other.

They stand poised, armed, ready to go.

We live in a world at risk, personally and globally.

It is a painful truth.

The planet is heating up, nuclear bombs could go off intentionally or by accident, and you never know when an airplane engine will become dislodged, fall to the ground, and strike you dead while you’re sitting here reading.


Did you happen to notice what a warm and wonderful day it is in Pasadena today?

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