The Importance of Positive Self-Talk During Cancer


An optimistic attitude is beneficial to achieving good health. Those affected by cancer need to learn to tap into the valuable resource of positive self-talk. Here's how:

When I was a child, I loved books and worked on building an extensive library. There were so many good books back then, and they were filled with good morals and values. Many of them became well-loved favorites. One book that I’ll always fondly remember was entitled “The Little Engine That Could.” It was written by author, Watty Piper, and published in 1930. The story begins as a train, loaded with all sorts of food and goodies, prepares to travel over the mountain. The precious cargo is to be delivered to eager boys and girls but along the way, the train has problems with its engine and is unable to continue its journey.

The toys aboard the train try to figure out a way to help and signal passing trains with their pleas. One after another, engines refuse to help. After many cries for assistance, a small train comes along, sees the distress of the toy-laden engine, and offers to help. The little engine isn’t equipped to carry such a load, but knows there’s a need and does her best to assist. The little blue engine begins to repeat aloud a positive mantra - “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.” As she pulls and tugs to get the train started rolling again, the positive chant continues. The little engine successfully climbs the mountain into the village.

That children’s classic came to mind as I was thinking about my breast cancer journey. There are valuable lessons in that story, and although it was written specifically for children, I think it can speak to adults today, too.

Sometime, during my cancer trial, I began to believe the lies cancer told me. Lies like, “You’re not good enough. You’re no longer a real woman. Your life is over.” Those words wormed their way into my heart and mind, taking up residence there. They would surface whenever I let my guard down. At first, I didn’t recognize the damage they were doing. I found myself saying, “I can’t” more often. I used my health issues as an excuse to get out of doing things I would normally do. But as I found myself speaking negatively more often, I realized something had to change. I needed to learn to discern fact from fiction.

By encouraging myself with positive self-talk, I found, like the little engine that could, that tasks were easier to complete. At first, I felt silly being my own cheerleader, but even when I didn’t speak the words aloud, my thoughts gradually shifted from negative to positive ones. If I needed to accomplish a task for which I didn’t have the strength or energy, I’d tell myself I’d try. Sometimes I’d attempt a task multiple times before it was complete, but if I persisted, I usually succeeded. Whenever I managed to get the job done, I’d compliment myself by saying something like, “See, you did it!” or “Slow and steady wins the race.” I was happier because even though my physical limitations were real, the power of positive thinking helped me a great deal.

Optimism is a wonderful characteristic, but sometimes it’s difficult to achieve while in the midst of a physically demanding health trial such as cancer. There have been numerous studies on the power of positive thinking and how they affect a person’s physical health. Doctors understand this concept and encourage their patients to try and keep a positive attitude. They realize the effects of such thinking will be evident in their patients’ day-to-day activities.

It’s not easy to keep a positive attitude during chemotherapy or other cancer treatments, but it can certainly help uplift the spirit. Those who tend to focus on the positive often have an easier time managing their treatments than those who don’t think optimistically, but there are some pitfalls that must be avoided.

Here are a few helpful tips on learning to recognize some dangerous pitfalls:

Avoid negativity from others. It may be necessary to disregard what others say. Sometimes, those who don’t understand your physical limitations may speak without thinking. A prime example would be a comment such as “Aren’t you afraid of dying?” or “Are you sure you’ll be able to handle that?” Their careless words may feed your fears or wound you deeply. You certainly can’t control what they say, but you can control how you respond to what is said. When you feel their negativity weighing you down, it may be necessary to remove yourself from the conversation. Feel free to voice your desire to focus on the good instead of the bad. It’s okay to set up a healthy boundary.

Conquer your own fears. Fear is not only negative, it can be debilitating. If you’re unable to talk yourself out of a fearful situation, it may be necessary to obtain professional help.

Avoid physical exhaustion. You’ll be more vulnerable when you’re exhausted or when you haven’t had enough sleep. Being tired can negatively affect your mood. Be sure that you’re getting proper rest.

Stay away from junk food. Eating well can help stave off negative mood swings. A proper diet can impact your mood in a positive way. When you eat well, you feel well. Junk food filled with too much sugar or too many carbs can cause a negative physical reaction including blood sugar swings, headaches, drowsiness and lethargy.

Get enough exercise. Even when you’re going through treatment, it’s important to make time to move. It’s not necessary to spend hours in a gym or have a personal trainer. Small efforts, such as trying to get more steps into your day, will help. Moving more will help you feel better.

Maintaining a positive attitude and learning to develop your optimistic self-talk can help keep your mood healthy. The Bible says, “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” If we think the worst about ourselves, we’ll begin to believe it and vice versa.

By focusing attention on the positives instead of the negatives chances are your outlook will be happier and clearer. Just like the little engine that could, it’s important to have encouraging thoughts. He thought he could get the toys over the mountain even though he wasn’t really sure he could, and guess what, he accomplished his goal!

Cancer is so full of negativity. Just reading, writing or speaking the word casts an ominous shadow, but we don’t have to let it. Let’s do our best to speak positively to ourselves and allow those words to speak life into our lives. It’s worth a try, isn’t it? It’s worked for me and I know it can work for you, too.

That little train thought he could and he did. Four little words made the difference, “I think I can.”

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