I recall a patient telling me that she played “peekaboo” with her cancer diagnosis. She described how hard it was to think about an uncertain future and the prospect of dying. She needed time to look away and catch her breath. How can any of us keep our eyes wide open without a reprieve when facing a life-threatening illness?
The reference to “peekaboo” was in response to a question I asked her about how she was coping with cancer. I had learned during my tenure as a medical humanist at the cancer center that some patients wanted to be told everything about their health status while others preferred hearing news in small doses. I documented her answer in a note, which was shared with the cancer care team. In this instance, the doctors learned about her preference to receive health updates in small doses.
Over the years I’ve heard other patients describe how they coped with uncertainty. Kathy, a lung cancer patient featured in our Difficult Conversations video, told us, “Denial can be a wonderful thing.” She went on to describe how hard it was to think about her condition being incurable. When we showed the video of her making this comment at SpeakSooner educational programs, it often prompted laughter because it resonated with attendees.
I imagine that most of us have played “peekaboo.” We’d cover and uncover our eyes and surprise a child with “I see you.” How innocent and sweet a game this is. Facing a serious illness is not so simple or non-consequential. How long can any of us obsess about our mortality without it dampening our energy and spirit? It’s a delicate balance between looking towards and away from uncertainty.
So, you could say that looking away can be a good thing, more like a healthy way of adapting. It’s not the same as avoidance. I subscribe to catching our breath to explore inner resources and embrace the strength of loved ones. As a result, we can find space to move towards living more fully. Whether we choose to name it peekaboo, distraction or denial, taking time to reflect on what is truly joyful in our lives can be a way of re-charging ourselves as we prepare for what’s to come.