Soul Letters for the Cancer Sojourner, #9 Some Negative Thoughts About Positive Thinking

Hey! Person wit cancer! I’m mo make a deal wit ya.

I’ll give you one dollar for every time someone says to you:

“Hey, you need to think positive!”

Then you and I gonna take a long, expensive cruise to the Bahamas. Deal?

Because we could, couldn’t we?

How many times have you heard that already?

And how close are you to punching the next person who tells you you *have* to think positive right in the head?

—–

I’m joking. About the cruise, anyway. I’m definitely not joking about the number of times a person with cancer is told –  and it is usually told, as in instructed, as in “you have no choice if you want to help yourself be cured of cancer you *must* do this” – to think positive. They’ve probably heard about some study which proved the effects of positive thinking on cancer. They’re likely speaking from the assumption thinking positive thoughts impacts on recovery rates from cancer. That’s okay – most people who insist people with cancer only think happy thoughts speak from this assumption.

It’s easy for people who don’t have cancer to tell those who do to only think and talk positive. And I mean it – it’s very easy for them to say it. I think expecting a person with cancer to only think positive is like asking a hungry person to never ask for something to eat.

image credit: iStockphoto
image credit: iStockphoto

As in cruel and impossible.

For most people experiencing cancer, the disease and its impacts can very well be the worst thing which ever happened to them. And frankly, telling someone who’s experiencing something very, very bad they shouldn’t talk about it or else they risk making it worse frankly, isn’t very – well – positive.

For someone who has cancer to be unable to talk in a fashion which might be deemed by others to be “negative” can only really have benefit for the people around them who don’t have cancer, because it certainly isn’t going to be any good for the one who does. When the person with cancer never talks about the scary parts and is never honest about their fear of pain or death, the only good thing which results is the people around the person with cancer don’t have to deal with their own similar fears, or ever confront some of the pressing issues which often need to be faced when someone they love is dying. Like resolution. Or forgiveness. or sadness, or loss. No, if we as a person with cancer continue to talk upbeat and deny cancer has the capacity to kill us or destroy anything we value, all of us can keep on living as if everything is just fine.

Except that it isn’t just fine. Somebody has cancer, people.

The premise regarding positive thinking and cancer has been the subject of various scientific studies, and there are several conclusions available to support both sides of the argument. I can find a couple right now via a reliable search engine to prove my position –  which is positive thinking has little bearing on cancer outcomes. This is what I think because this is what I’ve seen.

I’ve seen people who didn’t think positively all the time survive cancer, and I’ve seen people who did think positively die from it. That’s all the evidence I need.

Besides, it’s impossible. And unhealthy. You just can’t think positively all the time, and nor would you want to.

And what do we even mean when we say “positive”? What does talking negatively about cancer even mean? Does it mean saying things like “I’m worried the treatment won’t work.” or “I’m afraid of dying”? These are the kind of comments likely to make our loved ones catch their breath in their throat. Do we really believe it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Or could it be because these kinds of statements cause us to have feelings and think things we’re not ready to be confronted with? Could it be we want a person with cancer to only say and think positive things because we feel inadequate to deal with any negative things? Could it be because we unconsciously want to pretend cancer isn’t happening?

I think these premises are closer to the truth than we might care to admit.

Besides, do we really think cancer is even listening to the things we say?

One thing I know about cancer – it’s about as smart as a pound of wet liver. Here’s something I’ll put money on – it’s not listening to a dang thing you say. It’s just mindlessly doing what cancer does best – multiplying itself, over and over. If being positive was enough to stop it doing that, then none of us would ever get cancer in the first place.

If happy thoughts canceled out cancer cells, then why didn’t that happen before we found out we had cancer? We had plenty of happy thoughts back then.

When it comes to cancer, the “positive thought” line of reasoning doesn’t really help because everyone needs to be able to tell the truth about what’s happening to them, and express all their thoughts and emotions without judgement or criticism, of themselves or those thoughts. Judging our thoughts as “good” or “bad” causes us to feel we are responsible not just to get better, but for getting sick in the first place, and all the problems being sick has caused for us and others.

Thinking positive may make others feel more relaxed around us, but those negative fears and emotions rarely just disappear. They need to be acknowledged, stewarded, and loved into their place before they become panic or anxiety, because these can cause us to make choices we might not normally make.

Appropriate support and care involves you as a person with cancer being allowed to express your experience and your self without feeling you’ll make cancer worse somehow, or feeling you’re responsible for causing it in the first place through something you couldn’t help like “negative thoughts”. Feeling you did this to yourself will have the effect of undermining your trust in yourself to make good judgements and decisions. It will make you doubt yourself, and that’s the last thing you need right now. You can absolutely be trusted to make good judgements, and your negative thoughts do not mean you’re weak or “bad”.

Cancer is bad. You are not.

You are a strong, beautiful and amazing person experiencing something pretty awful right now. And sometimes, you’re going to need to say  out loud, “You know what? This is fucking awful.” I suggest you find someone – and I believe there will be someone somewhere in your life – to have this conversation with for whom this kind of statement isn’t threatening or scary, someone who will help you laugh at how stupid cancer really is in the light of fabulous, wonderful you.

And if you’ve been the kind of person in the past who was accustomed to saying “Just think positive!” to someone with cancer, perhaps now is a great time for you to instead become the kind of person I just described. Someone who allows their scared, emotional friend to express themselves fully without judgement, someone who isn’t frightened by conversations about cancer or dying, someone who can help their friend see how truly incredible they are, and who can help them heal, and trust themselves again.

Go to it. 🙂

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7 Replies

  • I think having a positive mental attitude is vital in controlling worry and stress. It has helped me in many aspects of my life, most recently in my experience with bowel cancer. I spent three months in hospital withh complications, which are still ongoing.

    Using visualisation and positive self talk worked for me while i was there.It is very lonely in a hospital bed.

    I am currently reading an interesting book, “Switch On to Your Innerstrength” by Sandy Macgregor. In this he says ” There are many negative attitudes which can influence our self talk about medical conditions.eg ” It runs in the family”.

    There is the concept of active meditation wher you direct your mind to form healthy images of your body and to give it positive images to work on.

    In the meditation process you can direct you immmune system to be able to assist healing. So, for instance,if it’s cancer in the lungs, then you can direct your immune system with visualisation to heal the cancer and to giveyourself new cell memories of love and wholeness and completeness.
    Scientists today, one being Deepak Chopra, states in his book “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind”,that the body is replenishing itself all the time;98% of the cells are replaced every twelve months or so. When the cell is being replaced it gets the message ” replace cancer cells here” then that is just what will happen.”
    I think a peaceful, relaxed body will heal quicker with a positive mental outlook.I thought of many things i wanted to do when i got better. Travel, spend more time with my grandkids, finish that course i had started plus many other things.

  • Great intro video… Nice way of introducing youself and welcoming visitors… I!ll be back in a few days to look around more…

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