You Are What You Think: Staying Optimistic During Cancer


While I wouldn’t say that my cancer-related hospital stays were fun, I did my best to maintain a positive attitude and make the best of them.

cartoon drawing of blogger and lymphoma survivor, John Smelcer

A sage once said, “What you think, you become.” I’ve always found that to be true. During my hospitalizations, the doctors, nurses and staff constantly commented on how much they admired my positive attitude. Almost every day someone would say to me, “I wish everyone here had your positive attitude.”

Throughout my six-month ordeal with cancer — undergoing grueling weeklong hospitalizations for chemo and immunotherapy treatment — I was able to maintain my characteristic optimism. I met every person I encountered with a broad smile. I joked and laughed frequently. I spent my tedious days in between chemo bag swaps, vital checks and spinal infusions, writing poems about my cancer experience and painting.

I literally brought a full-size easel, palette, brushes and canvases with me during my stays. Staff walking past my room frequently did double takes, astonished to see a patient standing before an easel.

During the holidays, I painted a vintage camper trailer in a snowstorm. Later, at home, I affixed real Christmas lights along the edge of the camper in such a way that once plugged in, the colorful lights twinkled in the starry night. I also painted a portrait of my 10-year-old black lab at the beach.

As for poetry, I wrote enough poems to fill a full-length book aptly entitled “Running from the Reaper”(available soon to pre-order on Amazon). I walked a mile or two in the hospital hallways every day. I played the piano in the chapel daily. Friends came from far away to play chess with me. Others came for coffee or lunch. Staff would stop by just to listen to me regale them with stories and anecdotes.

At Christmas, I went caroling with one of the techs up and down the halls, singing Christmas songs accompanied by his guitar. On learning I was a writer, a few nurses purchased and read my novels and stopped by my room to talk enthusiastically about them. Some asked my advice on how to become a writer.

“Don’t quit your day job,” was my recurring advice.

I figured if I’m going to be stuck in a hospital, I might as well try to enjoy the experience as much as possible. I was guided by the old saying, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” From the lemon life gave me (cancer), I made a tangy, hard lemonade that went down smooth.

I hesitate to say that my hospital stays were enjoyable (I hope I never have to go back). I only mean to say that I tried to make them more tolerable for myself as well as for the doctors and nurses and other staff. My cheerfulness and humor made my experience bearable and, if you ask me, it made their demanding jobs more enjoyable.

The aphorism that we should, “Live in the moment” implies that we try to make the best of every moment, even the uncomfortable ones—maybe, especially, the hard times.

Part of the way I looked at it was to ask myself, “What if I do not survive my cancer? What if the chemo kills me? How do I wish to live my last weeks or months, however uncertain?” I chose to live them joyously, to dwell fully in every moment. For example, I even had a good time in radiology joking with the radiologists and techs as they guided a needle into a sack between my spinal disks twice a week. We even bantered about the ‘80s and ‘90s songs playing on their playlist as they performed the operation. I even got to know the housecleaner who cleaned my room every day.

In life, you can let something break you or shatter you, or you can let the experience strengthen you and prepare you for life’s future tribulations. I chose the latter. You might consider it.

Cancer is no laughing matter, that’s for sure. It’s a tough and lonely road. But being melancholy all the time doesn’t help anything. It just makes everyone miserable. If you ask me, laughter really is the best medicine.

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