Why it’s OK not to be positive! (plus some funny cartoons on cancer)

FOL personality

Image credit: “Cancer made me a Shallower Person” by Miriam Engelberg. Click to enlarge.

Updated 25 Jan 2014:  I recently came across this quote in a blog post by chemobabe which pretty much sums up what I was trying to put across in my post:  

“Treatment sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

While attitude may influence compliance, it does not otherwise influence outcome.

The right treatment for the disease is what counts. …  

I think it’s disappointing to come to terms with the fact that positivity is not going to determine the outcome. …  

I will tell you that the women I admire most are the ones who flourish not because of their good attitude, but because of their unflinching honesty.”

So … let it all hang out.  Being authentic is more important than being positive.

Being positive and the Law of Attraction and Cancer

There is this New Age philosophy that people with cancer must remain positive.

There’s also another New Age meme that holds that somehow, people are responsible for their cancers.  Or the popular Law of Attraction which implies that people with cancer attracted their cancers to themselves like some sort of warped anti-health magnet.

What I attempt to do in this post, is to trace the roots of these beliefs, why it seems to apply only to cancer, why I think it’s dangerous, and what we can do to counteract it. There are also loads of funny cartoons on cancer to liven things up.

I’ve been challenged by this sort of thinking in my cancer journey.  

“You attracted your cancer”

I once attended a group healing, and was told that perhaps my Higher Self wanted me to have the cancer (“oh, thank-you, thank-you, Higher Self, Christmas has come early!”).  

Even today, I struggle with such thinking.  I don’t have all the answers, and I’m willing to be open to the idea that something within me, has attracted this experience into my life, because it means that I can un-attract it – the belief that we are in control of our lives.

There are loads of books out there written by cancer survivors who say that cancer has made them a better person.  

Cancer turns up the volume in your life

What I’ve observed is: what cancer does is turn up the volume on your life.  If it was crap before, it becomes more crap … if you were stressed, you get more stressed … if you had relationship problems, they get worse … if you were a negative person, you get more negative.

It may make you step back and assess your life, but Cancer is not some sort of Fairy Godmother waving her wand and changing your life for the better!


Image credit: “Cancer made me a shallower person” by Miriam Engleberg

Positive Thinking can be dangerous

I may be opening a can of worms here, but this Positive Thinking school of thought is dangerous.

At a time when cancer patients are feeling vulnerable, they are exhorted to feel positive, otherwise the cancer will get the better of them, and they are made to feel like failures when they don’t feel positive.

I know that a lot of people who’ve encouraged me to “hang in there” or remain positive mean well.

I also realise that their exhortations to “be positive” is their coping mechanism for dealing with the fear of cancer.


Grateful for the positive help from friends and family

Despite my flippancy during the radio show, I am grateful to my saints of friends who have remained at my side and prayed for me, despite my lack of positivity.  I have seen friends and bosses distance themselves because of my lack of positivity or depression, and I understand their reactions because they too have limited energy resources, they can’t always be making allowances for me, and they may find me too draining.

(The cancer journey is a marathon, not a sprint, and I should not expect people to have the stamina to keep up with me, but man, it’s lonely out here.)

I am also very grateful to my counsellors who have worked hard on getting me through the journey.

Authenticity vs putting up a false front

Why expend energy pretending to be positive, in order to prop up friends and family who are well?  Surely it is more healing to be authentic? 

Constructive coping instead of being positive

I think a better phrase than being “positive” is “constructive coping”.  Dr Peter Harvey, a clinical psychologist, who worked with cancer patients has this to say:

“Coping is not a single process, but is multi-stranded, employing a variety of strategies to deal with a variety of challenges.

There is no one, right way of coping.

Coping is not an all-or-nothing event; it requires effort and energy. It can be tiring, uncomfortable and very difficult and we cannot expect ourselves to be able to cope easily without some cost.”

Are you suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?

The diagnosis of cancer itself registers as a trauma or a shock, especially as it’s life-threatening, and so too can the medical interventions for cancer. Like soldiers returning from a war, most cancer patients suffer from a degree of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (taken from Grace Gawler’s handbook, “A helping hand:  simple tools to enhance your recovery and life during and after cancer”).

Stop giving yourself a hard time

Worse things to say

Substitute “cancer” for “depressed”!

So basically what I’m trying to say is:  people with cancer, stop giving yourself a hard time if you’re not always positive, or you are feeling depressed, or you react in a negative way.

Give yourself a break because in actual fact, you are behaving normally: “You are merely experiencing expected reactions to extraordinary events.” (paraphrased from Michael Stewart and Peter Hodgkinson – clinical psychologists)

Cancer is not a competition in coping!

Another thing I’ve learned from personal experience is:  don’t let others dictate your pace of coping, or compare yourself to how others are coping.  We are all individuals!  Cancer is not a competition in self-improvement!

If you go on a forum and get depressed by the responses, then quit that forum – you are not there to please others! (I had an experience on a forum in which I was told my reply was too negative by the forum administrator – it made me wonder if the rest of the people replying on the forum were being authentic, or putting up a front!)

Positive thinking in cancer – a modern development

This sort of positive thinking and you-are-responsible-for-your-cancer belief wasn’t around.  It seems to be a development of more recent times.

Why is that?

I recently read one of the most insightful blog posts written on this subject by Sylvia Kapp on Positive Thinking.

I quote at length from her post, but only because she says it so much better than I could:

“Modern Western thinking tends to assume that everyone’s basically in control of their life, and that we end up where we do because of the choices we make.

The whole “American Dream” is predicated on the assumption that you can achieve whatever you want as long as you work hard enough, believe in yourself enough, and never give up.

If you don’t like your circumstances, it’s up to you to change them – and this appears to be linked with the metaphor of “fighting” cancer, which is so widespread as to be taken for granted.” (Sylvia Kapp)

Positive thinking – an offshoot of the “we can control our destinies”, New Age thinking – the Great American Dream

It is this belief that we are in control of our destinies, that we can change what we don’t like, which is at the root of all thinking that you can cure your cancer through thinking positively.

Your can heal your lifeIn recent years, partly, I think as a result of Louise Hay’s seminal book, You can Heal Your Life, there is a new consciousness amongst New Age proponents that claims that our focus creates our reality.

This is not so different from the positive-thinking or law-of-attraction schools of thought.  It puts a lot of pressure on those who have life-threatening illnesses (and not just cancer) to change the way they think, because the judgement is that there must be something wrong with the way they are thinking to have brought about the illness.

Cancer as a karmic lesson – are you God to know this?

And there’s yet another school of belief that says that it’s a karmic issue, and the person with the illness has chosen to work through karma in this lifetime (the illness being seen as a gift).

I don’t know which school of thought is more mis-guided and more guilt-inducing.  Illness is not a pleasant aspect of life, and karma implies a judgement, and really at the end of the day, who knows what is going on except God?

The belief that cancer as a battle, and people who die as failures …

But why has cancer been singled out?

People dying from cancer are seen as losing the battle, yet when someone dies from diabetes or heart failure, they are not seen as failures!

Susan Sontag “Illness as a Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors” – cancer as an evil predator


Sylvia Kapp’s post provides some possible answers from Susan Sontag’s book “Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors” which looks at how we characterise and think about cancer:

“Cancer is talked about as if it’s an evil predator, or a serial killer who could strike anyone at any time, or an insidious parasite silently spreading through the body in order to destroy it.

(This is all specific and unique to cancer – no-one would ascribe sinister intentions to the plaque which clogs arteries and leads to heart attacks, or describe diabetes as the pancreas deliberately trying to starve the body of insulin ….” (Sylvia Kapp)

Cancer still poorly-understood

One of the reasons cancer is talked about this way is because, despite all the research that’s gone into it, it is still poorly-understood, and therefore open to the projections and fears of society (aka Cancer as the Bogeyman under the Bed syndrome).

“Sontag further adds it is this mysteriousness of cancer therefore lends itself to theories of causation such as the idea of a “cancer personality” (something that has never been substantiated by research).

Sontag points out that all significant diseases, before they were fully understood and treatable, were believed to be caused by personality and lifestyle or morals: in the 16th and 17th centuries, it was believed that “the happy man would not get plague”, and before the TB bacterium was identified, TB was viewed as arising from an excess of passion.” (Sylvia Kapp)

Finally, Sylvia writes:

“Cancer is a multi-factorial disease.  There are no clear explanations for why some people do so much worse, or better, than expected, even with the same type and stage of cancer.

So it’s easy to see how the idea that it’s your attitude which makes the difference between whether you fight or give up, and from that, whether you’ll live or die, took hold.” (Sylvia Kapp)

I think until they discover a direct linear cause of cancer as they have for diabetes (insulin, pancreas), or heart attacks (cholesterol, heart), or TB (tuberculosis bacillium, lungs, bones), cancer is forever going to be the mystery disease which strikes out of nowhere, for no reason.


Eek! I’ve been invaded by Cancer! They’re already here – you’re next!
(image credit: wikipedia)

Do you remember that most excellent science-fiction horror B-Movie, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in which aliens silently materialise and sneakily take over the bodies of a small American town?

The film was seen as a projection of American citizen’s fear of the tyranny of McCarthyism.

Cancer as a metaphor for our fear of the unknown and loss of control, like an alien invasion

Well, we don’t have aliens today (at least, not any that I’ve seen), but guess what, just substitute “Cancer” for “Aliens”, and we have a metaphor for our times:  our fear of the unknown, dehumanisation and lost of control.

Cancer is something that seems to come from another world, just like aliens.   And they’re not friendly aliens like ET.  Cancer grows inside us, taking over, metastasing, evading capture through mutation, causing us to lose our humanity and our lives.

We no longer have to look to outer space for threats, they are within ourselves now.

So, this Positive Thinking business is borne out of our fears of a disease that we still don’t understand, and because of that we superimpose on it the only means within our control: our attitudes, personality and reactions.  It’s a defence against the possibility that there is nothing that can be done against this disease, that we are helpless to control it.

Cancer is random … therefore blame the cancer patient

The idea that the Universe can be totally random is terrifying, so we try to make sense of cancer by attributing causes to it, and blaming the cancer patient for having brought on the calamity.

This causes more stress than help.


Image credit: “Cancer made me a shallower person” by Miriam Engleberg

While it’s nice to feel that whatever good things we do, are helping to heal the cancer, and it gives us cancer patients a sense of control, it is stressful to have to lead every minute of the day wondering if decisions around food, juicing, sugar, sleep, exercise, and thinking are contributing to the growth of the cancer.

“It implies, essentially, that people get sick because there’s something wrong with them or in their lives, and if some people can choose to cure themselves and not die, then it logically follows that those who do die must have not wanted to live enough, or didn’t change their lives in the right way so as to restore balance and purpose or whatever.” (Sylvia Kapp)

Yeah – go girl!

Cancer affects happy, positive, fulfilled people too!

I’ve met many people who have cancer who were successful in their lives, raised happy families, were millionaires, or leaders in their fields.  They did all they could to rid themselves of the cancer.  If these people with seemingly-perfect, positively-happy, fulfilled lives couldn’t do it, does it mean they were failures and did not want to live?

Accepting cancer

Here’s a controversial thought:  What about giving ourselves a break and allowing ourselves to acknowledge that it doesn’t matter what we do, we may or may not cure our cancer, so why not just enjoy ourselves?

“The idea “what if my life path is already mapped out, and within that it doesn’t much matter what I do, so I might as well just enjoy my life” is incredibly liberating and would be a huge relief. Of course it’s hard to simply choose a new belief system overnight, but I’m experimenting with “if I believed this, what would that be like?” and it’s certainly very interesting.” (Sylvia Kapp)

This is what is known as acceptance.

Byron Katie

Image credit: The Work of Byron Katie

Byron Katie, in the Work embraces this healthy philosophy.  Her work enables users to question the thoughts that create a sense of want and not-having, and not-being, and allows the mind to reach some truce and peace.

There’s so much out there in terms of self-help.

Choose carefully a system of spiritual practice and help that will help you grow and feel better about yourself, and not a system that adds to the guilt, or has followers that make you feel guilty, or takes away the joy in your life.  It could be meditation, or knitting, or dog walking, or cooking, or watching The Only Way is Essex on TV.

It’s taken me a long time to find something that’s giving me comfort, and it’s playing the piano, watching cookery shows, writing sci-fantasy, my cats and blogging.  Thank you for reading this post and God Bless.



(If you’ve enjoyed the cartoons in this post, they’ve come from  “Cancer made me a Shallower Person” by Miriam Engelberg, which is a perceptive and funny poke at all those positive cancer survivor books. I’ve read it three times and still laugh at her observations.  I think it’s one of those books that you can safely buy for a person who has cancer, without causing offense, because it’s written by someone who had breast cancer, had been through the shit and still managed to find the funny side of what the crap.)


Sylvia Kapp passed away on Nov 9, 2013.  I met her on two occasions, at a clinic in Sussex.  I was struck by her intelligence and her ability to listen.  Until her diagnosis, Sylvia was a clinical psychologist working with HIV patients.  Her insightfulness lives on in her blog and experiences at Herzog’s clinic, Sylvia’s News.

One response

  1. The worst thing anyone said to me when they found out my diagnosis was “Well, at least you’ve lived a good, long life.” FFS. I wasn’t even over the age of 50! A friend of mine was told publicly to just get over it, stop wallowing and move on.

    I totally understand your feelings of isolation when people just shut you out because they get tired of anything to do with cancer or PST. They just want roses, butterflies and happy thoughts. This is why I joined a local support group and meet regularly. Everyone understands and no one has to explain. We mostly laugh and swap news, diet tips and what’s happening in our lives. We aren’t made to feel guilty if we talk about anything related to cancer.

    You have a great blog. Please don’t stop posting. 🙂

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