Why Cancer Survivors Cannot Always Be Positive

A cancer survivor describes how frustrating it can be to experience toxic positivity.

Overall I consider myself to be a positive person. I try to look on the bright side while constantly fighting a tendency towards depression I have battled all my life.

That is why I recently was blindsided by some friends. I have known them for over 30 years. I didn’t even think I was complaining when I simply stated that I was tired after two years nonstop of going twice a week for blood work and shots for my cancer. “Oh but don't you enjoy the social interaction?” they chirped.

“You have a chance to get out with people.” My mouth dropped open, especially since they're all counselors!

I tried to explain that while the staff and nurses were wonderful, it was time-consuming and took chunks of time from other things for two days each week. I also do not need this social contact, since I belong to many different organizations including church, writers club, book club and committees, and have other friends I see frequently. I thought to myself about the scar tissue developing where I get my blood drawn. I am tired of commuting, then fighting at the local hospital for a place to park, going through the COVID-19 protocol, going to the infusion floor, and often taking half an hour for shots that take five minutes. This is easy compared to what most cancer survivors go through, but it is also tiring.

I honestly do not think they were being insensitive. My sister recently sent me a great article, “How to Cope When Positivity Turns Toxic,” by Maile Timon.

The author explains that toxic positivity is defined as “The belief that, regardless of how unfortunate or dire a situation, maintaining a positive mindset is paramount.” The article reminds us that feeling bad is part of our evolving emotions in any kind of loss, ranging from a job loss to a losing a loved one to being diagnosed with a serious disease. All many people want is validation. When people try to induce positivity they often shame the person despite having good intentions.

I have honestly learned so much on this cancer journey. I used to be one of these people who caused toxic positivity. Now, when friends face a terrible loss of any kind, I simply say, “I am sorry, I am here for anything you need even if it is to sit with you and hold your hand.”

Being cheerful is a good thing, until it is not. I am sure every one of us cancer survivors has our own story about the insensitive comments people have made to us. We need to understand where they are coming from and resolve not to do this to someone else. We of all people know that sometimes, just being there and listening is all other people want or need. And we can do that!

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