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Getting cancer saved my life - by Dr. Diane Benfield, LCSW

Picture of Diane, a psychotherapist specialized in cancer

Diane started her work in oncology at the Cleveland Clinic Martin Health Cancer Center in 2018. She currently works as a remote psychotherapist for cancer patients at Florida Cancer Specialists and Research Institute. Diane also operates a small private practice geared toward those affected by cancer in FL, NC, and WA. Diane's main theoretical stance is Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapy (AEDP), and she participates in constant AEDP skills training classes as well as 1:1 supervision with a certified AEDP practitioner to continually hone skills and advance toward certification.

Getting cancer saved my life

“Getting cancer saved my life,” ‘Dave’ whispered at the opening of our first session. He went on to explain that he had not even realized that he had “not really been living” prior to the unexpected diagnosis. Life had become a routine exercise of “going through the motions” without awareness of its brevity. Time passed blithely by day after day, year after year, decade after decade. Until learning of his advanced cancer, Dave admitted he was on autopilot hardly noticing that he had entered the third quarter of his life – meaning there was more life behind him than there was ahead. It wasn’t until his late 60’s that Dave awoke to the reality that his days on this earth were numbered. Cancer got his attention.

What cancer patients teach a psychotherapist

As a psychotherapist who has specialized in working with cancer patients since 2018, I have met more “Daves” since then than I can count. I was new to the oncology space when Dave told me that cancer saved his life, and it really took me back. At the time, I knew very little about the myriad cancer diagnoses and treatment regimens. I was on a very steep learning curve, and I had a mind full of cancer-story stereotypes and misinformation.

In the last 5 years, however, I eschewed everything I thought I knew about cancer. My patients have taught me the whole truth about living with cancer that you don’t often hear about in the world. Obviously, patients share about the terrible lows, the shock, and the dark despair of receiving the initial diagnosis and treatment plan. I expected that. I was somewhat ready for that, although it never gets easier. It seems that all patients must first pass through an ominous and painful valley of the soul.

But, what I didn’t know was that, amazingly, most do not stay there. My patients teach me that the journey through the valley of the shadow of death, as awful as it is, is often followed by unexpected “blessings” and is a prerequisite to the discovery of a completely new perception of self, time, and other people. The valley and the struggle to trudge it creates a secret portal that each patient enters to discover a new existence. On the other side, they see an unfamiliar vista replete with unexpected gratitude, forgiveness, and strength. The struggle to endure the trauma of cancer births a brand-new creature – a stronger, softer, kinder, gentler, and more loving, generous, and accepting self.

What I wasn’t expecting were the scores of “Daves” that have sat opposite me talking about the “unexpected blessings” in their lives since getting diagnosed with cancer. I mean, who would have even thought this was possible?? This side of cancer so gripped me that I decided to devote my doctoral studies to exploring this phenomenon known as post-traumatic growth.

Post-traumatic growth after cancer

The theory of Post-traumatic Growth (PTG) was developed by Tedeschi and Calhoun in the 90’s to describe the inexplicable personal growth that most people who suffer and struggle through earth-shattering traumas and tragedies experience. Tedeschi and Calhoun’s PTG research data revealed that posttraumatic growth was evidenced in five discrete domains of human life: gaining a deeper appreciation of life, improved relationships with others, development of personal inner strength, the ability to see new possibilities in life, and deepening spiritual growth. The individual’s grappling with metabolizing their trauma is a necessary and paradoxical step to experiencing some or all of these five positive character changes.

I have personally observed this growth in most of my cancer patients. The burgeoning research literature connects PTG to many other populations, such as police officers, first responders, survivors of violence and natural disasters, and even Holocaust survivors. I have always been drawn to the “silver lining” of man’s suffering, probably because of my own experience with suffering. Many good things emerged from the ashes of my pain that I had not anticipated. In fact, long before I ever heard of PTG, I made a point to recommend Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to many of my patients to learn how one man metabolized his untold suffering to go on to live a long and productive life after the hell of Auschwitz. I discovered one of the greatest paradoxes in working with cancer patients over the last five years – confronting one’s death creates a deeper appreciation of life.

Good can surface from suffering

No one wants to hear they have cancer. No one asks for suffering. Yet, suffering and illness are universal, inevitable, and terrifying realities of the human experience. No one escapes suffering. But, the good news about suffering is that much good can flow from it if we don’t give up in the valley of the shadow of death. There are blessings on the other side that only come into view as we move forward through the pain, one day at a time, with the help of loving and trusted others.


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