Lack of motivation to change can be deadly


For 15 years I rounded at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia as a psychiatric consultant with the chair of the department of otolaryngology, his residents, and medical students to see severely ill head and neck cancer patients.

Dr. Richard W. Cohen is a psychiatrist who has been in private practice for over 40 years and is on the editorial advisory board for Clinical Psychiatry News. He is based in Philadelphia.

Dr. Richard W. Cohen

Most of these patients were very depressed, dealing with the severe losses of disfigurement, with decreased self-esteem, and the functional losses of mastication, smell, hearing, and taste. Further exacerbating their depression were the functional limitations of social skills they experienced, with attendant alienation, decreased concentration, persistence, and pace – as well as decreased adaptive skills.

Many of these patients were interjecting a great deal of anger and were very anxious dealing with their disabling surgeries and nonideal recoveries. I witnessed patients dealing with horrific losses – of their tongues, their mandibles, and facial bones – that were chilling, even more horrific than the textbook pictures that I saw in medical school.

Many of these patients I followed with medication management and psychotherapy as outpatients after seeing them during their hospitalization. Throughout the medical literature a direct relationship has been shown between head and neck cancers and alcohol abuse, chewing tobacco, and smoking, and it became apparent that many of these patients were dealing with alcohol and tobacco issues before their cancers. I would have thought that having gone through these horrendous experiences would have been an incentive to stop abusing. To the contrary, after following these patients, I found the majority (about two-thirds) continued with their old habits, even with my interventions.

Dr. Susan A. Cohen is a dentist based in Philadelphia.

Dr. Susan A. Cohen

Susan A. Cohen, DMD, a dentist who has practiced for over 20 years, has also witnessed comparable outcomes, having seen and referred similar cancer patients to the appropriate medical specialists, and upon following these patients noticed that about the same percentage (two-thirds) continued their alcohol and tobacco habits. A common theme and defense mechanism of these patients was denial, and they would often say something like “I have a great doctor who can fix anything, and I don’t have to worry about my habits.” In using the primitive oral defense mechanism of denial, they had problems taking responsibility for their own actions and changing their habits.

Furthermore, Dr. Susan Cohen reveals that abusing tobacco causes severe periodontal problems, including the loss of teeth. She also notes that the same patients have exhibited decreased personal oral hygiene, which further aggravates periodontal disease, loss of dentition, and increases the likelihood of cancers of the mouth and esophagus. She discovered that the losses that occur cause patients to become more depressed and continue the vicious cycle of self-medication with alcohol and tobacco.

In conclusion, we both found that despite disfigurement and loss of function, these postsurgical patients – for the most part – continued their abusive habits.

Dr. Richard W. Cohen is a psychiatrist who has been in private practice for more than 40 years and is on the editorial advisory board for Clinical Psychiatry News. Dr. Susan A. Cohen has practiced dentistry for over 20 years. The Cohens, who are married, are based in Philadelphia.

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