To Reveal or Not to Reveal


To Reveal or Not to Reveal

When the Therapist Has a Serious Illness

By Roberta Rachel Omin

January/February 2020


Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had an active therapy practice and initially chose to keep this news from my clients. It took me months of tests to get an accurate diagnosis before it was time for my surgeries and chemotherapy, and I frankly thought they wouldn’t notice.

But I was also protecting myself. These were vulnerable days, and I didn’t want to have to worry about how to talk about my experience of this frightening new reality with them. I struggled with whether it was fair to burden my clients with knowledge that could interfere with their ability to speak freely about their own less-than-life-threatening issues, or make them feel even more distraught about the uncertainty of life.

Eventually, my client Beth, who had a history of traumatic attachment injuries and had begun therapy weeks after her husband had died of melanoma, noticed that something seemed off with me. When I’d first mentioned I was having minor surgery and would be gone for a few days, she’d nodded and wished me well. I had no plans to explain further, so Beth caught me off guard when she plopped down on the couch for our next session and immediately asked, “How did it go?”

My lengthy pause instantly flooded her with panic and tears. In that moment, it felt utterly clear that being truthful was the only right choice: for her, for me, for the therapy. “I have early-stage breast cancer and…

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Topic: Ethics

Tags: Illness



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5 Comments

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 4:04:08 PM | posted by Mary Anne Cohen
Wonderful, wonderful article! In my first session back after a summer vacation, I was surprised at what a sunburn my therapist had. I said, "You have to watch how much sun you're getting," I chided him. "People die from melanoma!" He agreed and revealed his uncle had had melanoma. Eighteen months later my therapist was dead from melanoma...

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 9:06:50 PM | posted by Myriam Barenbaum
I have had the good fortune of hearing Roberta present on this topic--and yet reading this article is like discovering all over again how essential it is for us therapists to really think through and plan for the possibility of becoming seriously ill, and for the fact that we will all die one day, perhaps while still professionally active. I meant to create a professional Will after I first heard Roberta speak on this, and now shall commit to doing so. Thank you, Roberta, for courageously leading the way, and helping us to look at and think about issues we'd often rather avoid!

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 8:29:45 PM | posted by Joan
Roberta’s article is courageous. It’s scary to think of terminal illnesses. We’ve come far from the days when “cancer” was whispered in secrecy. I know curriculums have changed now but back in the day, they didn’t include opportunities to explore what happens when a therapist battles severe or even terminal illness. This article does just that in a thoughtful, thorough, compassionate and honest way.

Sunday, January 5, 2020 9:13:46 PM | posted by F
Thank you for this. Beautiful

Sunday, January 5, 2020 4:32:15 PM | posted by Terry Nathanson
Roberta, this is such an important contribution... not just for psychotherapists, but for health providers across the board. So appreciate your sensitivity and guidance for us human therapists facing the uncertainty of our mortality. You are bringing something often hidden in the shadows of professional isolation out into the healing center of community.