Friday, December 10, 2010

Positively Positive

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!


just call me jo said...

No anger here. I admire your logic and your insight. I don't think of myself as a sad sack, but some do. I just think I'm realistic. (also sarcastic) Whatever keeps you going is fine with me. I applaud your ideas and wish you only the best--whatever it takes.

Shady Del Knight said...

Having dealt with a chronic medical condition of my own since 1977 I am familiar with the jolting remarks and probing questions of well meaning family members, friends and co-workers. People get spooked when they are reminded of their own mortality. How you or I got the disease is irrelevant. It's our attitude AFTER the diagnosis that makes all the difference. We could curl up in the fetal position and wait for the end, or we can do what Patrick, Elizabeth and Randy did. They kept on fighting and kept on living life with gusto. Obviously, you are doing the same and so am I. Great post, Joanie!

Kathy B said...

I think you are trying to give people permission to be HUMAN! I love it. We face the same stuff with people who say "If you had enough faith...." Like it's some kind of jukebox that once you put your quarter in, you are OWED something. You wrote this beautifully in my opinion.

Red Shoes said...

Hey you... what a great blog to start off reading today!!

There is only one way that we ever ever lose, and that's just to stop... to give up...

We ARE human... we ARE prone to bad days... and that's perfectly OK... we acknowledge those days and move on.


Merry Christmas to you!!!


Pearl said...


1. I have found your attitude (via your writing) to always be one of bemused enjoyment.
2. I can't believe the cruel/stupid things human beings say to each other...


Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

If a bad attitude makes you sick I know several who would be dead. :-)

I understand your point of view and I applaud you speaking about this topic. No one can ever call you a sad sac if you read your blog. :-)

Merry Christmas Joan.
((Cyber Hugs))

Shan said...

I can't imagine how a person could be angry about anything you wrote. Okay, well I *did* almost put my neck out of commission when I read what that person said to you. WTH?

I agree with everything you've said. 100%. Here's where I think the positive attitude helps the most: It helps your loved ones. When my Nancy's husband was dying, his positivity amazed us, inspired us, brought he and Nancy closer. Sure, it helps the non-baster, too, but it's real power is for the watchers and the hopers.

Anonymous said...

A great read! I have no anger at all except for maybe the fact that you've made me tear up on my lunch break. I'm so happy to see how positive you are and continue to be. I'll try to apply that to my own life though I know it won't happen overnight.

Unknown said...

Great read and I love your perspective on it!

Charlene said...

The woman you mention was afraid. She was so afraid and insecure the only way she felt ok was to lay out a negative.

I believe positive energy makes your life better. I mean, we are all dying and our days will not extend into the far future, so why be a gloomy gus. It feels better to smile and see the reflection of that on the faces of others. That's why I cannot stand someone who NEVER has a smile and never tells a joke or never laughs at a joke. It is like sentencing yourself to more pain and less pleasure. It's stupid.

Linda Myers said...

What an honest post! I'm taking my friend to the doctor today, and I realize that when she asked me I felt a twinge of fear, as though her disease is contagious. How ridiculous! Let's hear it for life lived fully.

Rachel said...

Oh girlie - I have always thought your blog was one of the most positive and uplifting ones. And I can't imagine anyone accusing you of being negative and causing your illness.

Sometimes things happen, and we may never get an answer Why while we are on earth. And it makes no sense when they happen to good people.

(Your post reminded me of people telling my heartbroken mother that if she had enough faith, I wouldn't be deaf).

All I know, is that God can bring good things out of difficult things. And that we need to squeeze it out. My quote has been "don't waste the hard things".

So glad that you haven't wasted it. And that you are continuing to be a blessing to others.

Looking for Blue Sky said...

I think you see everything so clearly and calmly. Many people feel better if they can find a 'reason' for cancer, but often there seems to be no logic to it. Positive thinking is useful if it helps you as someone with cancer to live with it, but everyone deals with it in a different way. It's funny, most people who meet me in the real world say that I'm relentlessly positive, but I know that my blog tends to reflect the drama, aka difficulties, in my life, but your blog is almost always sunny, and it's greta to visit :D

ReformingGeek said...

What a great post!

The mind is a powerful tool. Who knows what it can do?

It is pathetic that someone said that to you, though.

Debbie said...

Gosh! I have no idea how I would face what you have!! I feel, based on my own trials, exactly as you do! Good attitude is great! BUT sometimes we hurt and cry and thats OK!! We rise above but after we have hit bottom! AND no one can tell someone else how they should do comes back to not knowing what it feels to truly walk in someone else's shoes! you rock!

Elle said...

FANTASTIC post! No anger here...I'm not even the slightest bit offended. I think you have a wonderful point. You gave yourself, and others, the permission to be human. We are imperfect, and as such, we get scared, and we get down, and we get mad. And that's all completely okay!!!

The woman who said that to you was just so far off base. Likely, that was her way of dealing with her fear over your news.

Being Me said...

WOW. I hope it feels really good to have these supportive comments as well, Joan! You deserve every one of them. This is a superb post, and I thoroughly agree with you.

Cheeseboy said...

One just needs to read your blog to understand you are radiating positivity! I mean, just how positive does one need to be? I mean, it's not like we are all Richard Simmons.

Great post. I hope she reads it.

Hearts Turned said...

Joan--what a wonderful post. I'm so sorry you have this to deal with, however...I love your honesty and the way you're dealing with it. I'm one that likes to joke around when things are hideous, just helps.

Thank-you for your honesty and for all that you share...


DeniseinVA said...

Dear Joan, you are an amazing lady and I know this post is going to help a lot of people. Sending this along with a big hug and a thank you.

Dana said...

I can't imagine anyone EVER even thinking you have anything less than one of the most positive attitudes of anyone they've ever met. I agree with the person above who said that co-worker was just scared. If "I" make "your" illness/condition/life circumstance about something YOU are in control of, then that also means "I" am in complete control of my health/condition/life circumstance. It gives "me" the illusion of control. That is so incredibly sad to me. I can't imagine the stress that would cause-thinking I better be on my best behavior or I'm risking the end of all things good in my life....or WHEN (not if, but when) something bad happens, the mental energy I would invest trying to figure out what I did wrong.

Great post, as always. BIG HUGE YELLOW SMILEY FACED hugs to you...hope the knee is healing nicely. :D

blandina said...

What a post. I have always been very frightened at the thought of cancer, maybe I confusely felt that, should my turn come, I would not be courageous enough. You have put this into perspective, now I understand that it is OK to be frightened and share fears. Beacause, after all, it is true that courage is not the absence of fear but a way to face it.
Thank you.

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