Keeping a positive attitude?

by IGotSunshine

A disease like breast cancer, if your treatment causes visible side effects like hair loss, can set you up for a lot of well-meaning remarks. It reminded me of being a new mother. Everyone, it seemed, had the inside track.

I heard them all—from “My sister’s friend cured her breast cancer with coffee enemas” to “Eat avocadoes and watermelons, lots of them.”

I was touched by the eagerness of friends and acquaintances to be helpful. And some of the advice really was useful.

But there was one remark that got under my skin: “I know you’re going to be fine—because you have such a positive attitude!” It annoyed the hell out of me.

First of all, I didn’t have a positive attitude. It was a mask. Truth be told, I was pretty sure I was going to die, and I had a negative attitude about that. So if my fate was to be determined by my attitude, things didn’t look good for me.

Second, the remark struck me as judgy—as if my friends were evaluating me on whether I was doing cancer the right way. Being expected to display a positive attitude seemed unfair when I was bloated and bald from chemotherapy, scorched by radiation, and worried about whether I’d keep my job or see my 16-year-old graduate from high school.

Third, and most annoying, there was research showing correlations between positive attitudes and a variety of benefits, like greater resistance to the common cold and better cardiovascular health. Good attitudes seemed to be good for you. And that was REALLY annoying. Especially since I knew my attitude was bad.

However, there is actually no solid evidence from any large, well-designed study that cancer is caused or exacerbated by a bad attitude—or prevented or cured by a good attitude. As long as your attitude doesn’t keep you from getting appropriate treatment or prevent you from maintaining healthy habits like eating a well-rounded diet, exercising, and abstaining from tobacco and excessive alcohol use, it really doesn’t seem to matter whether you’re seeing silver linings or wallowing in self-pity.

Although I was annoyed by their remarks about my attitude, I knew my friends were just trying to buoy me up. And there is comfort indeed in having friends in a time of distress, even if they don’t always say the perfect thing. In fact, the most painful reaction to my illness was embarrassed silence, when people I worked with every day looked at me and said nothing at all, not even hello. I’m sure they were fearful of saying the wrong thing. But I’ll take paeans to the powers of a good attitude over blank looks any day.

9 Replies

  • Thanks for posting this! During my treatment, I think I vacillated between being Polly Sunshine and a real crankmonster. I tried to honor and recognize each of my "selves" yet take care of my whole self through a good diet, exercise and good treatment.

  • Yes to a positive attitude not helping to cure cancer. It just makes other people not mind spending time with you. I hate the people that felt that we wanted to be left alone. We actually were lonely sometimes and finally told people that. We needed the company.

    Well said.

  • Thank you for your honesty! I have had many of the same feelings about well meaning friends being judgmental .... good and bad ... about my "positive" attitude. I am still thrilled when I wake up every morning and grateful to modern medicine that I am "fine"...whatever that may mean. The friends who made me the most cranky were the ones who thought I was dying. I received some wonderful letters of appreciation for who I am and all that I have done in my life. LOL . I am saving them to be read when I actually die!!!!! Many , Many years from now.😎

  • Refreshing! Nice to know I'm not the only one who feels that way. I smiled for my friends by day and prayed to die at night. Thanks Sunshine!

  • I understand completely.

  • I know, people tell me how "brave" I was; or how good I look (when bald, bloated and breastless)! I used to reply, "Well, I guess chemo agrees with me!"

  • I'm allowed to feel how I feel--whether it's upbeat, positive, hopeless, fearful....just like everyone else in the world!

  • I worked full time when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I felt that being with people helped me take my mind off chemo treatments and doctors' appointments. When I lost my hair I immediately got two wigs. When I wore them to work everyone said that my hair looked great. Nothing further was said about the change in my appearance. I had co-workers who made sure that I had enough time to take chemo treatments, and if I wasn't feeling well enough to go to work. Working helped me through a very trying time in my life.

  • People used to think my wig was my real hair. Now, my hair is growing back, no more wig!

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