Remembering the Positives as a Breast Cancer Patient

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • It's Friday the 13th today, but it's Friday!


    Looking back over the past year, I realize nearly all of the SharePosts about breast cancer I’ve posted here have been written in a pretty sunny tone. The cancer gripes, the SharePosts that sound as though they were written under a dark cloud, are few and far between. And recently, I started to question myself: is the cancer experience REALLY so positive, or am I simply ducking reality? Am I doing you a disservice by not reflecting in my writing more of the horrendous experience I know cancer can be–indeed has been, for many of you? Am I, after all, simply a shallow Pollyanna when it comes to discussing breast cancer?

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    After pondering that for awhile, I picked up one of my favorite books, “Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much,” by Anne Wilson Schaef. At 4” x 6” (my edition; note that it does come in different editions), this delightful book occupies a small spot on my desk, but its effect on my mind and spirit is all out of proportion to its size. The pages are dated rather than numbered, so every day I open the book and read the two or three paragraphs for that day. Each focuses on a topic: ambition, wisdom, joyfulness, control, alone time, despair, passion… Today’s reading was on courage.

    Anne spoke about her time in graduate school, where she acquired the nickname Pollyanna “…because I could always see something interesting and exciting in everything that happened.” Serendipity! This happens often; I’m pondering a particular subject, open this book, and there it is, right in front of me. Anne continues, “Because of the nickname and the subtle judgmentalism attached to it, I began to question myself. After some reflection, I realized that a Pollyanna was someone who denied the negative and only saw the positive. I did not do that. I saw and accepted the negative and delighted in whatever positive there was.” A light bulb went off in my head. Ah-HA! So I’m not a Pollyanna. But what am I? A positive realist.

    Five years of recovering from breast cancer treatment has given me a perspective I didn’t have when surgery had incapacitated me; when chemo had riddled my mouth with sores, and the daily grind of radiation was wearing me down. Back then, the devastating fact of “I have cancer” was still new enough to haunt me ceaselessly, day and night.


    Many of you are there right now: suffering through treatment, fearing what comes next, wondering if you have a future and, if so, what it’ll look like. It’s a challenge to find the positive in cancer, when you’re actively trying to beat it back. I’m sure if you’re receiving loving care from friends and family, you appreciate that right now; but it’s only later that you’ll understand the gifts cancer has given you.

    Gifts? Yes, gifts. Pollyanna would say, “Cancer wasn’t bad. I got to take a break from work, I have nice new curly hair, I got to meet a lot of new friends.” The positive realist says, “Cancer was hell, but I’d choose to go through it again. Because it taught me I’m stronger than I thought. And it became the big negative in my life against which so much looks so positive. White ink on white paper doesn’t show up. But write the same message on black paper… If your life is nothing but good times, how can you appreciate it? Go through hard times, and see how much more you appreciate anything even remotely positive–a warm spring day, a stranger holding the door for you, a great piece of chocolate cake.”

  • No, I’m not Pollyanna; I see the negatives. But cancer has taught me to accept them, and move on. To a place where I can “delight in the positive.” Which I try to do, every day.

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Published On: July 13, 2007