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While practicing psychiatry in my home office, I had many patients who were receiving grief counseling and trauma healing. Each patient had a unique need to know the how, why, and when of this illness—an illness that could eventually separate us, even if I lived.

My plan was to discharge my grief patients and pediatric patients, and continue with my other adult patients. As an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist, my practice was wide-ranging. I enjoyed the diversity.

I wrote in my journal, “This cancer’s my secret because I would never have one of my patients find out from the Internet.

The blog I started in 2012—when my daughter went to Thailand, and my mother died—was halted until I was able to tell each patient in person.

While I was waiting to begin the telling, one patient called to say that her father had passed away. She was still reeling from her husband’s recent death from cancer. How do I speak this news into the phone? Or heaven forbid, sit close to her in my office and say that word malignancy?

“With God by your side,” I heard the echo surrounding me. “With God, all things are possible.”

This seems so unfair, though. I knew I couldn’t continue to see her as my hair fell out and I became gaunt—watch her watching me, wondering how long before I left her, too. I want to hold her close and beg forgiveness for being yet another person to give way to the cells—undifferentiated growth thirsting for someplace to reside. Another body destroyed. It seems unkind to rob her once again of someone on whom she has grown to depend and love.

woman holding a card
Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

I won’t do this to you, I long to say. I won’t ever get cancer. Or God forbid, ask you to watch while I wither away during chemotherapy, as you look for signs, fearfully remembering the countdown with others while you measure it out with me.

And so this secret stayed a little while longer. The fewer patients I told, the less it intruded into my life. If I remained silent, could I halt this dark dance?

“Doctor Burns, how was Hong Kong?” my patients said. “I want to hear about your trip.”

Since they would never believe that I took weekly trips to the hospital instead of a journey to Asia with my son, I remained voiceless.

Message: Telling co-workers or clients created another puzzle. I decided to wait until I caught my breath and started treatment before telling all my patients. I discharged some because they had lost family members to cancer, but I continued to work throughout the two years of treatment. Each patient had a need to know, and to be taken care of individually.

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