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.