I’ve written about cancer and positive thinking in the past and have focused on whether positive thinking helps a person survive the disease. I now think that question often misses the point. What seems more relevant is whether positive thinking contributes to the well-being of a person living with cancer.

Willard Daetsch is one of the most positive people I know and he’s living with cancer. I emphasize the word living. In 1991, he was treated for colon cancer. In 2004, he was treated for lung cancer. In 2007, the lung cancer recurred and he’s continuing to receive treatment.

Daetsch is a professor emeritus at Ithaca College where he taught German for thirty years. “People say I look good, so maybe I am,” he told me. He does look good and still fits into his World War II uniform.

I asked Willard if he’s still optimistic after learning of the cancer recurrence. He said that he remains optimistic, but also realistic. He knows that he won’t live forever and every few months, he has tests to check the status of his cancer. But he doesn’t dwell on what he can’t control. What he can control is how he spends his time and he uses that time to be with the people he loves and to accomplish those things he finds meaningful. “I find pleasure in each day. I reach out and participate.”

When I spoke with him a few days ago, he was writing a letter to his friends to express his political views prior to the upcoming election. I think a sign of positive thinking is continuing to move forward each day and no one does that better than Willard Daetsch.

Tom O’Neil, a man roughly half Willard’s age, also illustrates the benefits of a positive attitude in living with cancer. About one year ago, Tom learned that he had nasopharyngeal cancer – a cancer within the top part of the throat, more or less behind the nose. The good news is that this kind of cancer probably won’t return once treatment is completed. The bad news is that the treatment is especially difficult, involving simultaneous chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Since treatment began, Tom has gotten most of his nourishment through a feeding tube because he hasn’t been able to swallow solid food. But he undergoes a periodic stretching of his esophagus to improve his swallowing and he’s getting close to resuming a normal diet. One doctor told Tom that he admired Tom’s aggressive approach to getting better.

Tom said that recovering from cancer is like any other form of rehabilitation. You have to work hard to recover all that is possible.

Like Willard, Tom is a good example of positive thinking or, more accurately, positive behavior. Sometimes we can’t control the cancer, but we can control how we adapt to the situation and change what is within our power.

To paraphrase Harold Kushner who wrote the book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, the real question isn’t why bad things happen to good people, but rather how people respond when bad things inevitably happen.

Cancer can’t be wished away by positive thinking, but positive thinking, as illustrated by Willard Daetsch and Tom O’Neil, contributes so much to our recovery from treatment, how we adapt to difficult change, and how we lead our lives.


From the Ithaca Journal, October 27, 2008


Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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