The Myth of the Good Attitude
Yesterday I got the news that an on-line friend died of inflammatory breast cancer six years after her diagnosis. Earlier this month a friend I’ve known thirty-six years died suddenly from heart problems related to her cancer treatments. What did my friends have in common? A positive attitude.
A woman I know from high school days just received her breast cancer diagnosis. “She’ll do fine. She has an optimistic attitude,” I was told.
A few years after my cancer treatments, a work colleague told me, “I knew you would recover. You had such a good attitude.”
Frankly, I resent the “good attitude myth.” I know way too many people with wonderful attitudes who are dead. I can’t even begin to count the number of times people have credited my survival to a good attitude. I try to be polite when I hear it, but I find it offensive. Why should such an innocuous phrase send me over the edge?
First, friends and colleagues only know the public persona of the “good” cancer patient. No one knows all the moments of terror, negativity, and depression I felt during my cancer treatments. My husband knows more than anyone else, but there were moments of doubt that I couldn’t share even with him.
Often someone would invite me to an event several months ahead, and I put it on my calendar with a smile while my brain was saying, “You might be back on chemo; you might even be dead.” What kind of positive attitude is that?
Second, the myth that patients with positive attitudes get well can make us repress our fears. I was in a support group with a woman who was reading a book that perpetuated the idea that good thoughts conquer cancer. Whenever a group member shared a worry, this woman said that she was going to get well because she didn’t dwell on fear and negativity. I don’t know what happened to her because she dropped out of the group, but I worried about her. Surely, wisps of worry floated through her mind from time to time, but instead of getting rid of them by sharing in a group or writing them down, she was shoving them to the bottom of her soul.
Third, every time someone tells me that I got well because of my positive attitude, they are in effect blaming all of my friends with wonderful attitudes who didn’t survive. These courageous people deserve better. This “blame the victim” mentality is insidious and impossible to fight. If I mention an optimistic person of great faith who died, the response is that I only know their outward appearance. They must have harbored doubt and fear deep down. Wait! We’re back to my first point. I was also experiencing deep doubts. But I’m getting credit for a positive attitude because I’m still alive.
So can a poor attitude kill us? Maybe. I’ve known people who said, “Cancer will get me in the end. I’m not going to try the treatments the doctor is suggesting. Why bother when I’m going to die anyway?” That kind of negative attitude leads to death. I’ve known other people who have the same kind of negative attitude, but they do what the doctor says while they whine and complain every step of the way. Three or eight years later, they are surprised to find they are still alive. Of course, they still have plenty to complain about because that’s just their personality.
What is a good attitude? I’m sure everyone has a definition. Here is how I see it. People with good attitudes are in touch with the reality of their situation. If they have an early stage cancer with a high likelihood of a cure, they don’t obsess over what might have happened if they hadn’t caught the cancer early. If they have an aggressive cancer with a bad prognosis, they focus on what they can do to increase their chances of survival and follow through.
People with good attitudes know they will have high and low days. They may take an occasional day to wallow in self-pity, but they pick themselves up and keep moving forward. They find constructive ways to deal with their fears and worries. Some keep journals; some find a friend who is a good listener; some go jogging; some create art. It doesn’t matter what they do. What matters is that they acknowledge those feelings and get them out.
People with good attitudes continue with the activities that give them joy. They listen to their favorite music, or they rent a movie if they are too sick to go out. They read their favorite scripture or uplifting books. They laugh with a child or talk on the phone with a friend. If they are too sick to hike like they used to, they switch to a short walk in a beautiful park. They know that life-affirming activities will make their treatments easier to bear.
People with good attitudes use their best skills and resources to deal with their illness. Not everyone will fight cancer the same way. Although many people find new skills along the way in their cancer journey, their basic personality probably won’t change. The extrovert will enlist friends to help her and after treatment may volunteer with Reach for Recovery. A logical person may spend hours learning about all the medicines and treatments available while someone else may prefer to leave it to the doctor. But everyone has the resources to cope with cancer. People with good attitudes find that cancer brings out their best selves.
A “good attitude” won’t keep us alive, but it can make our cancer journey easier. When we acknowledge the reality of our situation, express our fears, find joy in daily living, and use our best personality traits, we may not extend our lives; but we will make however much time we have meaningful.