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Weathering the Storm of Diagnosis

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Wendy Baer, MD - Blogs
By Wendy Baer, MDPsychiatric oncologistApril 17, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Have you ever seen The Wizard of Oz? I watched it again recently and was struck by how much the opening scenes of the movie, the black and white ones, reminded me of what people go through when they are diagnosed with cancer. As anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer can tell you, the “work up” phase – the process of figuring out what you have and getting to the exact diagnosis, including the degree to which the cancer may have spread – is a frightening ordeal. Like the storm Dorothy experiences, the storm of cancer seems to come out of nowhere and leaves you confused and in disarray. It dumps you somewhere you never thought you’d be (and could never have imagined), struggling to get back to a place of normalcy, desperate to get back home.

And why did the tornado have to come straight for Dorothy? She was just walking along, doing the “right thing,” being good. Many people who get diagnosed with cancer wonder the same thing – why me? Why now? I never smoked! No one in my family has cancer! I eat kale every day! I am too young for this! But like a storm, cancer diagnosis can strike suddenly, and often for no clear reason.

After diagnosis, you may feel alone and isolated – separated from your spouse, kids and coworkers who are all healthy, safe in the storm shelter like Dorothy’s family. And in the eye of the storm, under the dark veil of worry and stress, you may have a hard time seeing any of the good things in your life. In the movie, Dorothy actually sees frightening images pass by the window, like the wicked neighbor whose bike turns into a broom. For people diagnosed with cancer, they might see images of what cancer might mean for them: will I be horribly thin? What will I look like bald? How will I live if I can’t work?

Fortunately, as all storms do, the “work up storm” will pass. As the winds calm down, information stops swirling around you and you are able to see clearly again. The dark clouds of the storm break up and there are hints of sunshine. You begin to make sense of your diagnosis, and after the work up, you will have a treatment plan. Having a treatment plan to fight the cancer is very reassuring, kind of like a path, or yellow brick road, to follow that will get rid of, or manage, the cancer.

After her house landed, Dorothy realized she had survived the storm, but she was in a strange and unusual place (wicked witch, munchkins, talking trees). Once she had a plan, Dorothy was able to regain her confidence, take one step at a time, and began the journey back home. Being in the storm of a cancer diagnosis and “work up” is frightening, and may cause you to lose sight of what is good in your life, but once your treatment plan is in place, you will be able to carry on.

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About the Author
Wendy Baer, MD

Wendy Baer, MD, is the medical director of psychiatric oncology at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Baer helps patients and their families deal with the stress of receiving a cancer diagnosis and going through treatment. Her expertise in treating clinical depression and anxiety helps people manage emotions, behaviors and relationships during difficult times.

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