I’m Seeking Balance Between Toxic Positivity and Negative Vibes About Cancer

The truth is I stagger back and forth between the two camps — tell it like it is or walking on sunshine. It depends on the day, my treatment regimen, the lab or scan results, the losses and the gains.

In the six and a half years since my stage 4 ovarian cancer diagnosis, I’ve seen it and heard it many times. So it shouldn’t have annoyed me so much.

I’m talking about a TV news broadcast story recently in which a cancer survivor/spokesperson smiled into the camera and said, “If you have hope, you can beat this disease.”

Seriously? If hope was all I needed to send cancer packing, to be “cancer-free,” to eliminate this scourge from my life, don’t these folks think I would’ve hoped morning, noon and night, hoped like crazy, until the disease slunk away, defeated long ago?

Believe me, I understand the rationale. Without hope (and more importantly, my faith), I would sink into a swampy morass of woe-is-me despair. I’m still here despite all the statistics that say most women diagnosed at stage 4 will not make it past five years. That’s reason to hope.

But didn’t those women in similar circumstances who died also have hope . . . until there was none?

I’m in regular contact with other cancer patients on social media. There are two camps: one rejects toxic positivity as unhealthy, both emotionally and physically. Trying to be positive in the face of bad scan results, horrific side effects, unceasing pain, the loss of the lives we’ve imagined for ourselves, the awful toll it takes on our families, and financial ruin burdens patients beyond what they can bear. Putting on a happy face for family and friends is an added strain for an already besieged, weary person.

In the other corner, we have the patients who believe positivity — finding the silver lining, focusing on what we can still do and searching for new ways to be happy — is an important part of our cancer treatment regimen. We find the physical exercises we can still do. We eat healthy, even when food tastes like cardboard. Those who are able do yoga, hike, swim and travel.

I lost my mobility due to cancer, so every day I do chair aerobics with my buddy Paul Eugene on YouTube as well as 30 minutes of seated, stationary cycling. It’s a far cry from the active lifestyle I used to love, but it keeps me sane.

Some learn mindfulness. Some, like me, double down on our faith, searching for meaning and understanding in our suffering.

In some ways it’s easier to be positive. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning. I need to believe God has a purpose for me, a reason I’m still here when so many women with ovarian cancer—so many people with all types of cancer — aren’t.

I do believe the powerful prayers of my church family have been heard. I believe God has given me these years to write stories that will touch the hearts of my readers and bring them closer to Him. However, I’m human and I don’t understand why I’ve been given this mission field and my first agent died of colon cancer, my friend Rosenda died of uterine cancer within two years of her diagnosis, and the couple on the next pew at church lost their daughter to breast cancer.

They’re all believers. They all prayed. Their loved ones and church families prayed for them. Not hard enough? Not long enough?

So, when well-meaning people suggest “God’s got this,” I might seem a bit testy. I’ve been guilty of shaking my fist at the sky, and saying, “Really, Abba Father? What’s up with that?” The truth is I won’t get the answers—certainly the answers I want—until I’m face-to-face and toe to toe with my Maker.

The truth is, I stagger back and forth between the two camps—tell it like it is or walking on sunshine. It depends on the day, my treatment regimen, the lab or scan results, the lossesand the gains.

No one can be positive all the time. Being Eeyore to Christopher Robin’s Winnie-the-Pooh isn’t particularly helpful either. What I ask from the people around me is the space to be truthful about how I feel. Don’t put me in charge of making them feel better about my cancer. Support me when I’m feeling blue. I’ll try to do the same for them.

Together, we’ll muddle through.


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