The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Diagnosis is not Destiny

Authored by Sydney Reed, L.C.S.W.

Three months ago after having been diagnosed with cancer, I sat in my living room and marveled at all the beautiful bouquets, orchids, plants and lovely thoughtful cards that surrounded me.    It brought to mind the article I had read some eight years earlier by Elyn Saks in American Prospect.  She commented that she was in the hospital for cancer surgery and was surrounded by flowers and observed,

“When you are in the hospital for cancer everyone sends you flowers, when you are in a mental hospital, no one sends you flowers.”

I had heard Elyn Saks speak some years earlier at the Georgetown Center’s spring conference, “Diagnosis is not Destiny” and I had read her book, The Center Does Not Hold.  Professor Saks is a full professor with a named chair at the UCLA School of Law.  She also serves on advisory committees of many medical schools.  She talks about living and dealing with her diagnosis of schizophrenia since she was hospitalized as a teenager.  She is a remarkable person and tells a remarkable story.  She has become a social activist for mental health, speaking at conferences, writing and doing research that helps the population get a better understanding of mental health and how it can be nurtured and implemented in our society.

She recalls going to lunch with a friend who exclaimed,” I’m so glad I got to know you before I knew you were a schizophrenic.  I would never have been your friend.”  She was saddened by the comment but glad her friend could share her feelings.   Professor Saks suggests we can all work toward breaking down the prejudices regarding mental illness.  I believe Bowen theory moves in that direction.

I suspect that Elyn Saks and Diagnosis is Not Destiny came to mind as I was facing a profound diagnosis of cancer for another reason.   When my doctor first told me I had cancer, my blood literately ran cold with shock and fear.  I’m pretty sure the first thoughts I had were “I’m going to die.”  My second thoughts as a person who has studied Bowen theory for 40 plus years, were, “What is the emotional process behind this “unidisease”?

To get through this and survive I will need to address the functional patterns I’ve allowed myself to fall into. I will need to act differently in some important triangles. It has been quite a mind numbing journey from initial tests to diagnosis to surgery to chemo therapy with radiation yet to come.   I’m half way through the chemo and managing better and better each time.  I firmly believe that my Bowen family system’s training has allowed me to manage myself the best that can be expected under the circumstances.  My choices have confused many people who don’t see cancer as just another symptom, albeit a serious, life threatening one.  For me the choice was never to “not think systems”…I’ve been at this Bowen theory stuff for much too long for that.  I’m convinced my understanding of theory has allowed me to live with and handle this diagnosis, which we all know need not be destiny.


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