Being Positive?

Dealing with the “tyranny of positive thinking.”

Being positive for me means trying to avoid easy traps to fall into: dwelling on cancer, being afraid to make plans, enveloping myself in a cancer identity.  

Two months after my breast cancer diagnosis I was at the park with my 1-year-old daughter, Kirtley, when an old friend showed up with her two kids. After hugs and shrieks at such serendipity, we began catching up. Her quizzical stare told me to go first since my very bald head made it clear that I had either joined a cult or was going through treatment for cancer. She was appalled to hear it was the latter, at which point she started regaling me with information on why it was critical that I not let a negative thought enter my head—or I would die. 

She didn’t say exactly that, but when I look back on it, that’s what I heard. Of course I told her I was being positive because, at the time, some literature suggested that bad, negative people gave themselves cancer, and I surely didn’t want her to think I was part of that group. Of course, the reality was that as I told her I was being positive, I was thinking, “Yeah, I’m positive I’m scared to death,” and fearing that if she was right, I was sure to die because there were few nights I didn’t lie in bed and wonder how my daughter was going to manage adolescence without me.

That was almost 20 years ago, and now people who offer any kind of advice for those with cancer have become a bandwagon for me. Indeed, a bandwagon from which they are thrown headfirst to the ground for uttering any admonition to “stay positive.”

And yet, as it is with any of the purported causes or cures, those of us who have been through a cancer diagnosis want to know the validity and science of any evidence that may help us live longer or stave off recurrence of our cancer, which means we have to take a look at this mind-body information to see if, indeed, there is any proof that positive thinking will make a difference.

And the overwhelming answer is yes and no and maybe and, like every other aspect of cancer, who knows. Or as one friend said, “Would you define positive?”  

Barrie Cassileth, PhD, chief of Integrative Medicine Service at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, has, as a career, studied, evaluated and implemented numerous forms of complementary therapy, including massage, art, music therapy and meditation. She points out that when the 1980s spawned the “attitude can impact recovery” issue, it was not the first time, adding that “blame the victim” attitudes go back at least to tuberculosis in the 19th century.

“It’s nonsense to think that if you don’t have the right emotions and thoughts you’ll get sick or you won’t recover. That kind of thinking is very hard on people with cancer. It affects the patient and the family in egregious ways,” she says, adding that making people think they’re psychologically inadequate often “leads to depression and guilt.”

Not feeling that you are “doing cancer right” can be a huge burden, Dr. Cassileth says, pointing out that people as well as their reactions to cancer greatly differ, and there is no science to indicate that how a person reacts to his or her cancer will impact survival.

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