Platitudes Can Be Toxic for People With Cancer

I was told I had the “good” type of breast cancer, but does such a thing even exist? I think not.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was told that my cancer subtype was the “good” kind of cancer. At the time, I wasn’t sure what this meant.

I have since learned that in the world of breast cancer, they refer to the “good” kind of cancer as those that are hormone-positive, because there are long-term medications (hormone blockers) that can be taken to try to prevent this cancer from growing more or recurring in the future, which isn’t the case with hormone negative breast cancers.

While I certainly understood the point that was being made, I was sort of taken aback by the assertion that any cancer can be “good,” or the intimation that this piece of information was supposed to mean that I shouldn’t worry.

When I finished active treatment, people would tell me how fantastic that was, and how incredible it must feel to be done. I was told on many occasions how fortunate I was and how happy and grateful I should feel.

“Should” feel.

Yes, I most definitely recognized that being done with the multiple surgeries was a good thing, and I also knew that taking a medication that could block estrogen was a protective factor, one that not everyone had the option to utilize, depending on their specific cancer pathology. But I most definitely didn’t feel happy. I felt exhausted and angry. I was angry that this happened in the first place. I was upset about the loss of time and emotional security, and longer lasting physical effects that I had and still to this day continue to deal with because of treatment.

It is very common for people to try and provide cancer patients with positive thoughts and encouragement, and in doing so, they (perhaps albeit unintentionally) can demean the entire experience. This is part of the phenomenon of toxic positivity.

There are various definitions of this term, but this definition from www.survivingbreastcancer.org seems to resonate: “Toxic positivity occurs when positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience.” These are the comments like “Look on the bright side!” and “You’re finished with treatment — you should feel fantastic!”

There’s that “should” word again.

So what if I don’t feel that way? Does that mean that my experience is any less valid than someone else’s, simply because I feel angry, upset, frustrated, misunderstood or overwhelmed when people think that I “shouldn’t” feel that way? Am I not allowed to go through the spectrum of emotions to process this entire experience? Do I not deserve the opportunity to have a very human response to everything that comes along with a cancer diagnosis?

Comments like these can be interpreted as demeaning and dismissive to how the person who is dealing with cancer is feeling, and they can generate even greater feelings of isolation and distress. They also trivialize and oversimplify the human psyche. People are complex beings with a huge spectrum of emotions and reactions to things large and small, and sometimes these emotions are fluid and can morph into new ones or coexist simultaneously with other very strong feelings.

It is possible to feel gratitude AND fear at the same time. It is possible to feel relieved AND enraged simultaneously. It is possible, and even normal, to have completely incongruent emotions. Cancer does that.

In fact, experiencing all the emotions and being given space to convey them is critical to processing a cancer diagnosis. Not being allowed to do so or expecting someone to suppress how they are truly feeling or shame them for articulating an authentic emotion or mood is a setup for potentially serious future psychological issues. Cancer is difficult enough without inadvertently creating even more collateral damage that requires time, effort, cognitive recognition and emotional bandwidth to unpack and work through.

Perhaps through speaking out, sharing stories and offering examples of our lived experience, we can bring attention to this phenomenon of toxic positivity and challenge people to reconsider how their words, no matter how well-intentioned, can affect those living with cancer.

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