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Cancer and Positive Thinking

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Whenever someone is diagnosed with cancer, people feel compelled to say, “You gotta stay positive!” (This is usually said with an enthusiastic pump of the arm).

I’m a pretty positive guy and I’m all in favor of positive thinking, but I cringe whenever I hear those words.

First of all, telling someone to be positive has never transformed anyone into actually being positive. I’ve yet to hear someone respond, “You’re absolutely right. I’ve never thought about being positive, but now that you mention it, I see the  wisdom in it. I will become positive and change my outlook on life.”  That just doesn’t happen, at least not in my world.

My real concern is for people with cancer who blame themselves for not being positive enough. How does one make sense of a recurrence if positive thinking is supposed to help? I hope no one sees their recurrence as a result of not thinking enough positive thoughts. People with cancer don’t need another reason to beat themselves up.

Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s great to have a positive attitude when dealing with cancer. I did and I’m sure it was helpful in my recovery.

If my cancer returns, I will again be positive. If there’s only a five percent chance of survival, I figure that I’m going to be in that five percent.

But attitude is largely a function of personality, and you are who you are. Positive people enjoy having other positive people and positive energy around them. People who aren’t so positive don’t necessarily want or benefit from cheerleaders in the room.

And even the sunniest, most positive people will have down days when dealing with cancer. It’s a scary, life-changing event and filled with uncertainty. Rather than telling them to be positive, acknowledge and share in their sadness on those days. Doing so makes an honest connection.

Cancer is no different than every other aspect of life. We need to face it in our own way and on our own terms.

 

Click here for all of Bob’s columns

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