One of the major unpleasantries of finding out you have cancer (besides the obvious!) is the task of informing all of your friends and family. In my case, since my lymphoma is low grade and slow moving, I usually began with something like, "First off, I feel completely fine, and I'm not going to die. Secondly, I have cancer." What usually followed was an open mouthed, wide-eyed gasp, then a plethora of questions. I'd work very hard to put my loved ones at ease, and answer all inquiries as honestly and openly as I could.
Usually, after all of the fears regarding my condition and the tests I was undergoing were laid to rest, a different form of questioning would begin. "How did you first notice something was wrong?" "Why did you decide to go to the doctor?" I'd answer, knowing the reason for this particular interrogation was for their own benefit. They were saying to themselves, "Have I ever noticed lumps in MY neck?" or "Should I be going to my doctor for a thorough check-up?"
I understood completely. Cancer is scary. Before my diagnosis, whenever I would hear of a celebrity or friend of a friend who had been stricken with the disease, I'd immediately look for a reason. "Well, he was a pretty heavy smoker," or "Her diet was really terrible, she didn't take very good care of herself." I'd justify their illness, placing my OWN healthy lifestyle on a different level, assured that this would never happen to ME, because I took CARE of myself. Now I realize how ridiculous I was being, but there it is!
So imagine my reaction when I revealed my "cancer news" to one of my coworkers as we sat in our dressing room and prepared for the first show of the day. She reacted much the same as the others, and began with the questions. Then, she said something no one before ever had: "Well, you know, if you had had a more positive attitude, you could've nipped this thing in the bud, right from the start."
Two things immediately popped into my head (after my initial anger began to subside):
1. I am one of the most positive people I know, and
2. Did she just have the audacity to accuse me of causing my own illness because I didn't SMILE enough to her liking?
It's been over three years since that conversation in the dressing room, and I must admit, it still gets to me a little bit! But it's made me think quite a bit about positive attitudes, and how many of us believe it affects our health. I'm going to give you my own opinion today. It won't be popular, I assure you, but I hope you'll stick with me and hear me out! Here goes...
Positive thinking has nothing to do with preventing or curing illness.
Wow! Did that ever feel good to get off my chest! Now, let me explain why I came to this conclusion:
First off, let me say that I'm a HUGE fan of a positive attitude. I DESPISE sullen sad sacs who seem to find great joy in telling you of all the things wrong in their life, preferring to sort of baste in their own misery rather than do something about it. I try very, very hard, on a daily basis to look on the bright side, to count my blessings and focus on the GOOD in people.
I also think my positive attitude has served me well as I accept that cancer will be with me for the rest of my life. I don't sit around moping, dwelling on the fact that I have these tumors in my body. I focus on the fact that they are lazy and low grade, and that I am currently extremely healthy and hardy. When I go to my doctor's appointments, CT scans, and other various testing facilities, I remain upbeat. I joke with the nurses, simply turn my head and ignore the pain that emerges when the needle goes into my arm, and thank the staff for taking care of me as I leave. I KNOW this has helped my overall outlook about this disease I've acquired. But will all of this CURE me? Absolutely not, in my opinion.
May I provide a few examples to back up my claim?
Patrick Swayze: I was an enormous fan of Mr. Swayze during the Dirty Dancing/Ghost years. Being somewhat of a dancer, I always admired his talent and the way he made dancing cool (even for guys!). I think what I admired about him more, however, was his dedication to his sweet wife, Lisa. They had been high school sweethearts, married ridiculously young, and despite his eventual rise to fame and the knowledge that he could have any young new starlett of his choosing, he still talked about how much he adored his wife.
When Patrick was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few years back, things looked very bleak, indeed. To everyone, that is, except him. He took on a new TV series, appeared on cancer fundraising telethons, and told Barbara Walters, in an exclusive interview, that he was going to FIGHT this cancer, and he was going to WIN! Now THAT'S positive, ladies and gentlemen! But Patrick didn't win. He gave it all he had, smiled till the end, and finally passed away this year, his sweet wife at his side.
Elizabeth Edwards: Do we really need to go into what a strong, positive lady SHE is? My goodness, this woman went through and survived her teenage son dying in a car accident, a cheating husband who fathered an illegitimate child, and learning on the day of her husband's losing the election for vice president that she had breast cancer. Where the rest of us would have been reduced to a pile of soggy, limp tears with just HALF of those tragedies, Elizabeth persevered. She campaigned for health care, wrote two books about her life, hoping to encourage others, opened a furniture business, and raised three children in the process.
It appeared she was beating her cancer until recently when she learned it had spread to her liver, and there was nothing more to do. She had hoped to live eight more years, so she could see her youngest child graduate from high school. She lasted only a few more days.
Randy Pausch: I just love this man! If you looked under "Positive Attitude" in the dictionary, surely Randy's picture would be the first to appear. He was a college professor at Carnegie Mellon University and author of the awesome best seller, "The Last Lecture." Although he taught computer science, he was mainly known for his inspirational lectures. He was all about taking chances, going after the thing you really wanted but most feared, and grasping life with both hands. His energy and attitude were infectious.
Then Randy was stricken with pancreatic cancer. Although he was determined to fight the disease with everything he had, he knew that his time could be limited, and made every effort to live each remaining day to the fullest. His lectures reflected that. He died in 2008 of complications from his cancer.
You would be insulting all three of these amazing human beings if you even suggested that their attitudes had anything to do with their diseases. They were awesome, thriving, positive people, and they passed away anyway. It was, I believe, their time. Nothing more.
I know what you're thinking right now. "Geez, Joan, what a DOWNER! Don't you think you're being incredibly pessimistic by saying all of this? Saying that there's no hope, even if you have a good attitude?"
I wouldn't blame you if you thought that way, but I'm here to tell you I believe it's just the opposite. Because when I finally realized that my attitude had nothing to do with my cure, I began to RELAX. When I was laying on the table and the nurse was drilling into my hip bone to extract a bone fragment to test, and I thought to myself, "MAN, this really SUCKS," I knew I wasn't dooming myself to certain death.
I was so relieved to finally have permission to be afraid, to sometimes hate the process, and not worry about it affecting my health.
Will I continue to smile and crack jokes with the hospital staff, and sing "Tell Me Something Good" to my oncologist as he enters with the results of my most recent CT scan? Absolutely. But if I'm having a bad day and the ugly lumps on my neck are visible and terribly frightening, I will allow myself to cry. And I won't worry that I'm committing suicide by doing it.
I've probably made a few of you angry today. I want you to know that I understand, and I completely respect your opinion if you disagree. But maybe there's someone out there that is going through what I did, with an illness of their own. Someone who keeps smiling through the pain and fear, and still continues to get bad news, so they're beating themselves up that they're somehow not being positive ENOUGH. I want you to know I release you. You're doing everything right, and you'll get through this, just relax.
And if someone ever has the nerve to accuse you of causing your illness because of your attitude, do what I do. Smile, flip your hair, walk away, and tell them, "Have a nice day."
Thanks for Reading!
- Anything Fits A Naked Man
- Nashville, TN, United States
- Welcome to my blog! I'm Joan, a former actress attempting to reconnect with my first love of writing. Join me as I ponder my Irish dad, sweet grandma, GPS dependency, hatred of the Hallmark channel, and other insightful topics that make you go, "Hmmm..."
- ▼ December (5)