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Forget the Power of Positive Thinking

Posted 8/5/2013

Posted in

  And that is a dumbed-down or mild version of the titles that occured to me today. If you know me, you know what I think about the cultural tyranny of positive thinking, the almost universal insistence that people with cancer think positively OR ELSE. And it is that "OR ELSE" that really infuriates me. The inference is completely clear: allow a negative thought to creep in, and you die. And it will be your own fault.

  It is just not true. And the fact that the charade and the insistence and the comments continue is completely unfair and hostile and dangerous for people with cancer. Here is the truth: as far as the cancer goes, it makes not one whit of difference what your mood or attitude may be. I know I have written this before, but it cannot be said too often. You are entitled to your feelings, whatever they are. If you are sad or scared or miserable, naturally the quality of those particular hours or days are worse, but the cancer cells are neutral and uninterested. They go about their biological imperative, hopefully being killed by chemotherapy or radiation or starved by hormonal treatments. They are not affected one single bit by whether or not you smile and project glittering positive confidence or sulk in the corner with your misery.

  This is a classic and wonderful essay by Barbara Ehrenreich. Read it, please, and enjoy. I give you the start and a link:

Smile! You've got cancer
Cancer is not a problem or an illness – it's a gift. Or so Barbara Ehrenreich was told repeatedly after her diagnosis. But the positive thinkers are wrong, she says: sugar-coating illnesses can exact a dreadful cost

If you had asked me, just before the diagnosis of cancer, whether I was an optimist or a
pessimist, I would have been hard-pressed to answer. But on health-related matters, as
it turned out, I was optimistic to the point of delusion. Nothing had so far come along
that could not be controlled by diet, stretching, painkillers or, at worst, a prescription.
So I was not at all alarmed when a routine mammogram aroused some "concern" on the
part of my gynaecologist.

How could I have breast cancer? I had no known risk factors, there was no breast cancer in the family, I'd had my babies relatively young and nursed them both. I ate right, drank sparingly and worked out. When the gynaecologist suggested a follow-up mammogram four months later, I agreed only to placate her.


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  • Alice Miele said:
    11/3/2013 7:52 PM

    I read this a couple of months ago when I was miserable and depressed. I had convinced myself I caused my cancer. And I worried that my cancer treatment would be compromised since I felt so lousy.. This article and post worked like magic and I felt uplifted and lighter. No one can tell me how to feel and there is no right way to get through cancer treatment. I am now cancer-free and not always positive. My legs hurt a lot after Taxol and my brain is sometimes a complete fog. I am thrilled that I am cancer-free but not laughing all the time.