Although some people do not believe it, also psychologists are human. We are wrong. We have problems and conflicts. Doubts assail us – and sometimes insecurities too. We are shocked when the world turns in an unexpected direction…
Having psychological tools helps us understand what is happening to us and deal with it in the best possible way, but it does not prevent life from hitting us with unusual intensity. That was what happened to Sigmund Freud.
In the 1920s, Freud was thinking a lot about death. He had begun to suffer from age ailments and was dealing with the idea of the finiteness of life. He worried, in particular, that he would die before his mother.
It was at that time that he introduced doubt into the heart of psychoanalysis by proposing the existence of a death drive, both in each individual and in “masses”. After writing the book “Beyond the Pleasure Principle”, he said that “death is the companion of love. Together, they run the world.”
His gloomy outlook stemmed, in part, from the events taking place around him. The ravages and massacres of World War I changed his view of the human psyche.
However, there was something else. Something his consciousness refused to accept, but his unconscious had already taken note of: the prospect of cancer.
Halfway between denial and concealment of those closest to him
Freud was a doctor and had always worried about his health. He was fully aware of the implications of a cancer diagnosis, especially at that time. However, his knowledge of human reactions did not prevent him from going through a long phase of denial.
In fact, he had verified for himself on several occasions a suspicious lesion on the right side of the palate, but he decided not to worry too much about it. So, instead of giving up tobacco, he preferred to believe that he suffered from simple leukoplakia.
Five years passed from when he first noticed the lesion until it really started to bother him. As a result, on April 20, 1923, he had a tumor removed that he himself described as a “benign” epithelioma. Then Freud decided to consult his old friend Max Steiner, who advised him to quit smoking, but did not dare to mention the cancerous nature of the tumor.
Around that time, Felix Deustsh, his disciple and personal doctor, also confirmed the presence of the lesion, but he also did not tell the truth to his revered teacher for fear of scaring him, although he advised him a new operation.
Freud was famous and knew the best doctors in Vienna, so he could have chosen the most qualified specialists, but he opted for Marcus Hajek, an otolaryngologist who he was sure would put his mind at ease.
He was not wrong.
However, the new ablation of the tumor ended in disaster and terrible bleeding. He then had to undergo radiotherapy whose only effect was to aggravate his pain.
Despite all the signs, Freud refused to acknowledge the seriousness of his illness. At that time he was absorbed by the pain caused by the death of his little grandson Heinz, with whom he had a very close relationship and for whom he felt great affection. Only three years before, his daughter Sophie had died, a victim of the Spanish flu.
His environment did not exactly help the founder of psychoanalysis to accept cancer. His disciples got into a discussion, not daring to tell him the truth.
Freud’s stage of acceptance and fight against cancer
When finally told the truth, Freud became angry with Deustsh, calling him a “miserable coward”, although he would later reconcile with him. However, once the disease was accepted, in 1927 he chose another doctor to treat him, Max Schur, who would attend him until his death.
Freud also went to Hans Pichler, one of the best specialists in maxillofacial surgery of the time, who would operate on him 25 times, placing different dental prostheses to help him speak and eat. Freud, however, referred to them as his “muzzle.”
At the beginning of 1938, the cancer had spread to the base of the orbit and, together with “all the recent interventions, presented as inevitable, but useless”, as he described them in a letter sent to Lou Andreas-Salomé, it caused him terrible pain.
However, the man who used cocaine for investigative purposes refused to take painkillers to maintain his lucidity. He wrote: “I prefer to think in the midst of torment than not be able to think clearly”, so he only accepted an aspirin as a painkiller, and from time to time. Despite the physical havoc that cancer was wreaking on his body, he demanded removal of an atheroma of the jaw because he was not allowed to groom his beard and wanted to maintain a dignified experience until the end.
Undoubtedly, the last 16 years of Freud’s life were a martyrdom. It is impossible to know if his illness would have taken a different course if he had acted more quickly, but his story teaches us a valuable lesson: we must be careful with denial.
We are all human and as such we are afraid. When something terrible happens to us, it’s more reassuring to look in another direction and put off coping, secretly hoping it’s all just paranoia. We all do that. It is a perfectly understandable reaction. But sometimes denial as a defense mechanism can waste precious time.
Roudinesco, E. (2015) Sigmund Freud: en su tiempo y en el nuestro. Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial España.
Rizzi, M. (2014) Biografía médica de Sigmund Freud. Rev. Méd. Urug; 30(3): 193-197.
Oppenheim, E. B. (1985) The Unwelcome Intruder: Freud’s Struggle With Cancer. JAMA; 396502.