Optimism will not cure cancer. Optimism will not will not magically stop cells from dividing and reproducing. Optimism will not stop disease from spreading. Most of us know this on a cognitive level, but it doesn’t stop us from hoping that, in addition to medicine, our attitudes can help us cure ourselves. I am someone who, not that long ago, was walking around with a body full of cancer, and I can tell you that I encountered some form of these “optimism cures cancer” attitudes on a regular basis, in almost every area of my life.
I believe that pessimism and realism are solidly valid ways of being oriented in the world. For as long as I can remember, optimism has never been a part of my life. There have been times in my life where I was ruled by extreme pessimism, but for the most part, I just live in realism. I have always felt pressured to steer away from my particular orientation, especially when it comes to my assessment of my competency or intelligence, or when it comes to my mental health. In the past two years, as I navigated living with cancer, I’ve become acutely aware of how my lack of optimism runs counter to so many messages I’ve received about cancer. If you have cancer, you should strive to be optimistic and hopeful that you will survive it, even if there’s no part of you that feels optimistic.
The concept of everlasting optimism is used to criticize people living with disabilities that aren’t always visible, particularly if those disabilities have symptoms that manifest in physical ways. Those of us with anxiety, depression, chronic pain (just to name a few) are told that positive thinking and changing our outlook will help us get out of bed, work through our to-do lists, and increase our self-esteem. There are a whole host of writers and activists who have been working hard to dispel the myth of mind-over-matter when it comes to the invisible conditions that may leave us debilitated. Here’s a great article about this kind of messaging from another TBINAA contributor. I’ve been so thankful to see these other, valid and legitimate narratives and ways of being circulated on social media.
I regularly witness this notion of everlasting optimism used in conversations with or about people with cancer, as if having an optimistic outlook can somehow alter the course of a person’s cancer trajectory.
Cancer defies logic, and that reality is hard for so many of us to hold onto. It defies logic in every single phase of its process. In the diagnosis phase, cancer can sometimes be predicted based on genetics or lifestyle, but often times, the diagnosis isn’t predictable. In the treatment phase, success rates can sometimes be predicted, but cancer always behaves however the hell it wants to behave. My experience is a perfect example of how cancer defies logic. I was diagnosed with an extremely rare cancer (approximately 20 cases a year) that normally affects young white male adolescents, ages 10-30. I am none of those things. Not a one. Cancer is not logical, and this is what makes it difficult to control and predict 100% of the time.
Because this reality is unsettling, we try to focus on optimism and hope for the best possible outcome. Oftentimes, though, the best possible outcome is far away from us and is not guaranteed. This reality is totally destabilizing. That lack of stability may also be compounded by healthcare professionals who treat you without compassion. It may also be compounded by friends and acquaintances who vanish because they aren’t equipped to deal with a cancer diagnosis.
Here are some realities for many people who receive a cancer diagnosis. Our life priorities either shift or are put on hold entirely. Were you planning on starting a new project, a new business, a new career, or a new school? Well…not right now. Because first you have to find out whether or not you’re going to survive this. Our day-to-day schedules are now in a state of upheaval. Remember how you used to plan your daily life around work, school, children, television, daylight/moonlight? Well…not anymore. Now you have to plan all of those things around doctor’s appointments, hospital stays, and side effects of medication. Our ability to plan for a long-term future becomes limited. Did you have a 3-year plan to get your life together, or start a family, or write a book? Well…I don’t know about that. The course of your life will be shortened or altered in ways that may permanently derail your future plans.
For some of us, making all of those adjustments means that we learn to appreciate every moment of life. Some of us learn to be flexible and adaptable with whatever comes our way. Some of us may even see a diagnosis as a catalyst to helps us re-shift our priorities and focus on what really matters. But for so many of us, a diagnosis doesn’t mean any of that. For many of us, a cancer diagnosis knocks the wind out of us; makes our lives crumble; leaves our physical bodies vulnerable to all sorts of immobilizing illnesses and side effects; and forces us to face the possibility of death before we’re ready. My words cannot convey the weight of all of this. Sometimes there’s no room for optimism.
More Radical Reads: How Positive Thinking Can Do More Harm Than Good
When we focus on the attitudes of people living with cancer, we inadvertently turn their struggles with their disease into a conversation about morality. “Good” cancer patients become the people who hold onto hope and who invest their energy in publicly persevering. Those of us who outwardly show optimism are publicly applauded and commended for our disposition in the face of such extreme adversity. We’re told that a positive outlook sometimes makes all the difference. Optimistic cancer patients and survivors are asked to tell their stories – the uplifting parts – so that other people with cancer can be inspired to also be optimistic. And on and on. (Susan Sontag writes about this kind of thinking in Illness as Metaphor)
I know that optimism in the face of chronic illness is appealing. Hell, those of us living with cancer do it to ourselves. I’ve participated in cancer support groups and have witnessed people in the group bombard group participants with messages of optimism when they express fear, doubt, anxiety, depression, or loneliness. I’ve witnessed people in these same groups talk about their negative feelings, and then minimize those same feelings that are weighing on them by saying “I shouldn’t complain” or saying “at least I’m still alive.” I’ve shared hospital rooms with other people with cancer who tell me that a positive attitude is what will help us get through.
More Radical Reads: My Mother’s Cancer: Inside the Body of a Warrior
The entire cancer experience – from diagnosis, through treatment, and into either remission or death – can be a very isolating and lonely experience. No matter how diligent we (people with cancer) or you (our loved ones) are about surrounding us with support systems and caring people, we inevitably end up feeling detached and separate somewhere along the way. Expecting a person to remain optimistic in the face of a cancer diagnosis feels oppressive, and this oppressive feeling makes us retreat further into our isolation.
It’s hard to witness someone suffer through treatments that makes them sick. It’s hard to be present with someone whose body is diseased and perhaps dying. It is hard to look directly at the bleakness and fear that loved ones dealing with cancer often feel. But sometimes that’s what that person needs – someone to be with them through the dark and heavy times.
[Feature Image: A photo of a person in profile. Their hair is covered in a pink scarf with a topknot. They are wearing gold earrings and a yellow shirt. Their eyes are closed. Source: Elvert Barnes]