Cancer Talk: The Negative Side of Staying Positive

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Writing for The Breast Cancer Site has been a wonderfully encouraging experience. I’ve watched women who’ve experienced breast cancer become part of a warm, welcoming community where they encourage each other through one of the most difficult times of their lives. Women share tips, women share love, and women help each other stay positive when the going gets tough… really tough.

Positive thinking does more than make us feel good. It can also improve health and help us cope with stress, so why would we ever utter a negative word?

Unfortunately, there is a negative side to always staying positive. According to a 2018 Macmillan Cancer Support report, feeling like we can only talk positively can mean we avoid saying things the negative things that need to be said. Here’s what we stand to lose in an all-out effort to stay positive:

Talking About Our Fears

According to the Macmillan report, health care professionals say that the pressure to stay positive keeps them from bringing up the subject of death—even when someone has terminal cancer. People with cancer also admit to being afraid to talk about death because they feel guilty for not staying positive, and 28 percent have a hard time being honest about their feelings regarding their cancer. Many people, 25 percent of those surveyed, said they hadn’t shared their thoughts about death because they wanted to be seen as a fighter.

Being positive is good, but keeping our fears locked up inside can be damaging to our mental well-being. Staying positive does not preclude talking honestly about our fears. Positive thinking shouldn’t become denial. Talking about our deepest fears—to our doctors, to our loved ones, to ourselves—can make those fears more manageable and even encourage positive thinking. Being honest about our fears can be an important part of our coping strategy.

Planning to say goodbye in the way we want

The majority of people facing cancer, about 76 percent, think about the possibility of dying. But because both medical professionals and patients are hesitant to talk about their fears, they do not make end-of-life plans for pain management or memorial service preferences. Lack of communication could mean that someone passes in a hospital when they wished to pass at home—a wish that could have been granted had there been a plan.

The Macmillan report suggests that thousands of people die in hospitals when they’d prefer to pass at home. Trisha Hatt, of Macmillan Cancer Support, told BBC News, “For healthcare professionals, there is often a fear that the person is not ready to talk about dying. We know however, that making plans while receiving treatment allows people with cancer to retain a sense of control that they may have felt that they had lost. This can be the pillar of strength in what is an emotionally turbulent time.”

Understanding Reality

Positive thinking does affect our health, perhaps more so than we realize. But the most positive person in the world may still pass from stage IV breast cancer. Putting on a happy face can’t keep chemotherapy from zapping someone’s energy or cancer from metastasizing. When it comes to cancer and other diseases, there are some cold, hard facts that have to be faced. And despite someone’s determination to do all they can to fight their disease, most of what they can do is closely follow the advice and prescriptions of their doctors and hope for the best.

Attitude matters, but too much emphasis on attitude makes it feel as if we can beat cancer with attitude alone, and that can be hurtful for those who struggle and especially for those facing a terminal diagnosis. We need to look for ways to see the positive side of things without making it seem like we should be able to beat cancer with attitude alone.

Being Brave In A Different Way

Cancer is not a one-size-fits-all experience. There can come a point when someone wants to bravely face their death on their own terms. Perhaps the rigors of treatment don’t seem worth it, perhaps it’s someone’s second, third, or fourth round with cancer and they don’t want to go through it again, or perhaps, for whatever reason, someone is simply ready to go. Being ready for the end takes a special kind of bravery, and it’s oftentimes even harder for the person’s loved ones than the patient themselves.

Paul Meisak, of the UK, was told at the age of 56 that he had terminal cancer and had a year to live. He told BBC news that he feels fortunate to have been able to accept his prognosis when he heard it. He’s spent the last year making memories with his wife and telling people how much he loves them. “It has made this journey, not a dark journey, but actually an illuminating journey,” he said.

Cancer can be a dark journey, but every day we see women and men living with positivity, laughter, and even joy in the face of their diagnosis. Those reactions are wonderfully inspiring and encouraging, but it’s important we remember that those aren’t the only reactions allowed at the table. Fear and worry are real too, and it isn’t wrong to give voice to those emotions and plan for all scenarios. Staying positive in the face of fear is powerful, and we encourage it, but we can’t allow the pressure to stay positive force us to bottle up our fears and forgo important conversations. Being honest takes immense bravery.

Stay brave, friends.

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Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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