Managing Feelings About Cancer
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work
SEPTEMBER 03, 2021
Almost without exception, I have had at least one conversation about positive attitudes with every single person with whom I have ever worked with. There is a pervasive belief in our society that having a positive attitude is necessary when going through or recovering from cancer. There is a parallel belief that having a less-than-positive attitude is dangerous and could hurt your health. I have told everyone throughout the years that there is no evidence to support either of these statements, and that there have been numerous studies that have endorsed the fact that your outlook or attitude makes not a whit of difference to cancer. Of course, feeling more positive, cheerful or hopeful has a lot of do with the quality of your days, but feeling negative, angry or depressed will not make you less healthy.
You have come this far with cancer, and you can manage whatever comes next.
It would be impossible to go through cancer without feeling depressed, angry, scared and alone at some points. Being able to express all of your feelings, positive and negative, will help you feel less isolated and better. Please believe that the whole spectrum of intense feelings is normal. If you would like more reassurance about your right to be grumpy, ask any of your doctors or read this short article from The American Cancer Society, “Impact of Attitudes and Feelings on Cancer.”
My intention today is to tell you about a different and more helpful view. Begin by discarding the theory of there being only two options: either an optimistic or pessimistic view of any situation. In either case, you are eliminating many of the subtleties and ignoring the reality. Positive psychology suggests that we can learn to accept the reality of any situation and nurture our resilience and resourcefulness to deal with it. Having faith in ourselves and our abilities will help with any difficulties, cancer-related or otherwise.
Accepting the reality of living with cancer is challenging. I know it may seem simpler to fall back into old patterns of either believing that everything is certain to work out fine or that the worst outcome is coming. The truth is, the reality for each of us is not so clear, and can change over the months and years of our experience. Distorting the reality by either glossing it over or catastrophizing won’t help. What does help is looking at the facts and remembering our strengths. You have come this far with cancer, and you can manage whatever comes next.
How do we do this? The advice is not so different than what you already know. Try to stay in the present moment and don’t, as my mother would have said, go borrowing trouble. A wise friend once told me: There is no point in worrying because it is very likely that whatever is on your mind won’t actually happen and, instead, you will have to deal with some other unexpected thing. This has been mostly true in my life and, I suspect, in yours. When we apply this goal to living with cancer, it must become more general. It is not unreasonable to worry about possible progression of the disease, but it does no good to lie awake thinking about the specific what-ifs. For example, if you obsess about the possibility of cancer spreading to your lungs, you will become hypersensitive to every breath and too easily imagine that you are winded from climbing a hill. Instead, on that hill, think about your strong legs and even envision a rope next to you that can be used to help pull yourself uphill.
We know that anything is easier with company. Study after study has confirmed the importance of social support systems. Try never to worry alone. If you are feeling anxious or sad, pick up the phone or go online. It is also a faithful, loving and honest presence that we crave in all relationships. This means that we need to be able to talk about the hard parts without hearing only upbeat, positive responses. Especially in our close relationships, we need to be able to be authentic and honest. We want to be able to express our most painful worries and to be heard and literally and figuratively held in response.
Finally, we all know that believing that our lives have meaning and value is most important. Many people find solace in organized religion, but there are many other ways to feel part of the human universe. Listen to great music; read about history, philosophy or faith; visit a museum, even virtually, and really look at the art on the walls. Go outside at night and look up at the stars. NASA’s Perseverance Rover has just landed on Mars. That is a fact to stretch your mind and your belief system. Remember both the value of small things and small kindnesses and the enormity of the universe. Both are yours.
Going through cancer will mean good days and less good ones. It usually helps to remember that there will be tough times and not to be shocked when they engulf us. Be gentle with yourself and focus not on any negative feelings, but on the promise that you will get through whatever lies ahead.