Last night, like many others, I settled in to watch the mid-summer classic, the MLB All Star game. It’s not so much a game, as it is a spectacle. Last night, it also became a cancer spectacle—of standing up and never giving up the fight. This morning, as I thought about it more, I got a funny, uncomfortable feeling in my belly.
To give this discomfort some context, I’d spent much of the day yesterday talking with my mom and providing her support. A dear friend was losing her husband to cancer. She was struggling with her feelings at the end—with wanting the suffering to be over, of the fatigue of caregiving and bearing witness to watching a spouse die a painful, undignified death. That family stood up to cancer. They fought. They lost. It’s not their fault. But the message I took away last night was, sing a “fight song,” hold up a sign, think positive and everything will be ok. I couldn’t help but think about all the people who won’t be ok, despite all the fighting.
I’m sad that we set people with cancer up for failure by telling them to “think positive,” or “fight harder.” What if they do think positively about their hopes and their recovery and they STILL develop metastatic disease or have a cancer recurrence. It is because they didn’t think positively ENOUGH or fight hard ENOUGH? No, it’s because cancer is a horrible disease that in many cases, we cannot cure or control. This is a victory of disease over medicine: not mind over matter.
In 2002, I read a fascinating article that has stuck with me all these years. It is called, “The Tyranny of the Positive Attitude” by Barbara Held (Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(9), 965-991). Held asks a very important question, “if there indeed now exists unprecedented pressure to accentuate the positive, could it then be that the pressure itself to be happy and optimistic contributes to at least some forms of unhappiness?”
With all the singing and the sign holding and the pressure to NEVER give up, are we contributing to the distress of cancer patients who don’t achieve remission or have a disease recurrence? I think so.
I want to tell people with cancer that it’s ok to be angry, negative, pessimistic, realistic, sad, and worried, while also being hopeful and positive. We don’t have to compartmentalize the negative-we can embrace it, learn from it and not be so hard on ourselves when things don’t necessarily go our way. There are also really important things we need to do while we are coping with cancer that we might not get to do if we are only focused on BEATING the cancer – things like saying I love you, or I forgive you, or crossing off an activity on our bucket list, or saying goodbye. These are JUST as important in the “fight” as these are the things which make us human beings. Not a disease—not a positive attitude. But how we live, even when we might be dying.