I will be the first to admit that when it comes to cancer, I am probably not the most positive person. I never viewed my two years of treatment as some “journey,” and I absolutely despise those who call cancer a “gift.” (If you think cancer is a “gift,” then you were on the receiving end of some pretty crappy gifts in your life.) I would go as far as to say I’m a cynic and realist about cancer, but not a Debbie Downer.
The pressure to remain positive during cancer treatment starts at the very moment you are diagnosed, and you are relaying this information to friends and family. I tried my absolute hardest to maintain this mindset during treatment, but it didn’t last long. Maybe a couple of months? When you’re dealing with stress from treatment on top of family relationships being tested and broken, it takes a toll. You can only smile so much as you endure chemotherapy and bad news after bad news.
Author Barbara Ehrenreich (who also had breast cancer) wrote:
The effect of all this positive thinking is to transform breast cancer into a rite of passage – not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or grandmotherhood. Everything in mainstream breast cancer culture serves, no doubt inadvertently, to tame and normalise the disease. Indeed, you can defy the inevitable disfigurements and come out, on the survivor side, actually prettier, sexier, more feminine. In the lore of the disease – shared with me by oncology nurses as well as by survivors – chemotherapy smoothes and tightens the skin and helps you lose weight, and when your hair comes back it will be fuller, softer, easier to control, and perhaps a surprising new colour. These may be myths, but for those willing to get with the prevailing programme, opportunities for self-improvement abound. Breast cancer is a chance for creative self-transformation – a makeover opportunity, in fact.
When asked what would he say to someone who credits positive thinking to their survival, psychologist Richard Sloan commented in a November 27, 2011 CBSNews.com article: “I’d say, I’m very happy for you, I’m glad you survived. But for every one of you who said you were going to fight your way out of it, there are probably dozens of people who said precisely the same thing and didn’t survive. One person’s anecdote doesn’t make evidence.”
Exactly! Those who died of metastatic cancer weren’t all negative Nancys or Debbie Downers. A lot of lovely people with amazing attitudes died of cancer.
I would hope that anybody going through cancer would feel allowed to feel whatever they are feeling. You should silence those voices and pressure around you insisting that you must remain positive, and be authentic to yourself. If you’re feeling down, that’s okay. If you’re feeling awesome because it’s an off-chemo week, then masel tov! I don’t want anyone to put on a fake smile and pretend to be hunky dory if you’re sad. It’s okay – cancer sucks. If it was easy, then, well… who the heck ever said cancer was easy?
A fellow blogger and I discussed our hesitation to even write about the pressure to remain positive during and after treatment for a very messed up reason. What if we voice these not-so-popular opinions and then later have our cancers recur, then will people think, “Yeah, she brought this upon herself by being so negative.” If my cancer recurs next year or 10 years from now, am I going to be blamed for it because I didn’t don a pink boa and a punny T-shirt about breasts?
If someone you love is going through cancer and you’re not sure how to act or speak to them about the disease, just know your audience. If that person loves the battle metaphors and fighting persona, then go nuts. There are a lot of merchandise you can buy for them. Boy, is there ever.
However, if your loved one is someone like me, someone who talks about his/her experiences candidly and without putting on that Cancer Brave Face, then just listen to them. Empathize. You don’t have to put on your brave face, either. It’s okay to just hang out with someone. During my treatment, I became super skilled at just hanging out because I couldn’t really do much else. Be there for your friend and family, and never put your need for them to act like everything is fine because cancer scares the shit out of you over their own well being.
Whatever you’re feeling, it’s okay.