How did the positive-thinking mantra become the default position for cancer prevention? That question has been on my mind ever since my own negative-thinking drumbeat found both an audience (Newsweek, blogosphere) and, naturally, its fair share of criticism.
For those who can remain upbeat throughout their diagnosis, treatment and aftermath, I say: Good for them. Some people are blessed with an optimistic outlook, either by genetic predisposition or a happy childhood, or both. While cancer might give these lucky souls a bad day now and then, for the most part they stay steady even if their cancer progresses.
But the above model of coping is of no use to other cancer patients. They’re in shock. The life they knew is gone forever. Some patients are grieving for lost body parts. Some are dealing with pain and discomfort. Some are contemplating their mortality for the first time. Some are watching in despair as their plans for the future go up in smoke. Some look back on all the ways they got a raw deal in life — and now, to top it off, they have cancer.
How do those people turn cancer into a positive? Only through mental gymnastics. Don’t think of a purple cow! If you can’t, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough. To. Not. Think. Or so the party line goes.
I wondered who benefits from all this non-thinking. As a cancer survivor myself, I had to look at the situation from the cancer outsider’s point of view. For a nurse, friend or spouse struggling with their own fear of disease and death, not to mention caregiver exhaustion/depression, I’m sure it helps if the patient is always cheerful and grateful.
But that’s like saying: Irresponsible parents should stop having children. It’s a dragon eating its tail. If those parents were responsible, the issue would not come up in the first place. Instructing parents to be civic-minded doesn’t help. However, garnishing wages for child support might have a deterrent effect.
For most cancer patients, the advice to be positive does not help. On the other hand, funding research for more effective, less toxic treatments might brighten their world considerably.
What else soothes the anxieties of cancer outsiders? Belief in a magical, cancer-deflecting force field. I do yoga, I have good karma, I pray, I have no cancer in my family, I eat organic lettuce, I do good deeds, I take vitamins, I think positive, and therefore I will not get cancer.
Unfortunately, science has yet to deliver a cancer force field to mankind. And even if there were such a thing, how would that help those already diagnosed with advanced cancer?
Some things in life are just plain bad. Neglect and abuse of children, for example. Kudos to the grown children who can put abuse out of their minds and hearts for good and move on to a glittering future. But many can’t — not really, not completely. Implying they brought the abuse on themselves (like some of the veiled comments on the causes of cancer) just compounds the damage.
One of the best things cancer outsiders can do for patients is resist the urge to trivialize the disease. Instead, acknowledge what cancer has done to them and their lives. Respect their ability to keep going. Show tolerance for the dark moods that erupt. Instead of telling cancer patients to stay positive, say: I’m here for you no matter what.
AIDS patients got nowhere till they got mad. I’m sure their Act Up antics seemed obnoxious to some. But compare the AIDS death rates from 1980s to now. Thinking negative paid off in spades for AIDS patients.
Or, put another way: Want peace? Work for justice. Want positive thinking? Work for a cure.
There is one kind of positive thinking that I do encourage: Today I am cancer free. Or if you’re not cancer free, then: Today I’m creaky, cranky, weak and slow, but I’m alive and the sun is shining.
And as a barefoot porch-sitter in a Larry McMurtry novel put it: Maybe warm boards are the best part of life after all.