When I first started telling people that I have cancer, I received all kinds of advice. The most frequent advice was to “just stay positive.” Some people mentioned that they read an article correlating positive attitude to good treatment outcomes. It’s not clear to me whether staying positive directly affects patient outcomes. I’m not even sure how you’d measure that to be honest. Even the most positive people will have moments of depression or negative thinking. There’s currently no “positive attitude FitBit” to truly measure this. However, I know that in my own experience, a positive attitude definitely makes my daily experience much better. I cope better. I feel better. When I feel better, I do things that are good for me, like connect with people. I also exercise more, which causes me to sleep better, and eat better. All of these things are good for me and create a virtuous cycle. It’s logical that this would contribute to a better outcome because connection, sleep, nutrition, and exercise are the foundation of health.
After hearing, “just stay positive” about a dozen times, the phrase got stuck in my head. Then something strange started happening. Whenever a non-positive thought popped into my head, I found myself feeling like I’m being irresponsible by having this thought. Perhaps this thought will hurt my outcome? My own mind is sabotaging me. Despite trying to just stay positive, I would feel sad about the fact that I’m being poisoned every two weeks with chemotherapy. While this poison should kill the cancer before it kills me, it’s limiting my mental and physical potential in the meantime, and that sucks. This treatment would put limits on me. The “just stay positive” voice would say: “Hey, don’t say it sucks. At least there’s a cure!” This is true, but it’s also true that this sucks. These can both be true at the same time. Am I just supposed to suppress the those non-positive thoughts? It looks like I’m not alone in feeling this way. In researching the connection between attitude and treatment outcomes, I came across many articles talking about this issue. This excerpt from an American Cancer Society article summarizes the issue well:
People with cancer and their families may feel guilty about their emotional responses to the illness. They may feel pressure to keep a “good attitude” at all times, which is unrealistic. This feeling of pressure can come from within themselves, from other people, or both. Sadness, depression, guilt, fear, and anxiety are all normal parts of grieving and learning to cope with major life changes. Trying to ignore these feelings or not talking with others about them can make the person with cancer feel lonely. It can also make the emotional pain worse. And some people feel guilty or blame themselves when they can’t “stay positive,” which only adds to their emotional burden.https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-basics/attitudes-and-cancer.html
Reading these articles did help me understand that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way, but I wasn’t really sure what to do about it. Then, while using Headspace to meditate, I had a breakthrough. I have been using the Headspace app to meditate for a few years now. I recently discovered that the app has a 30-day series for cancer patients. Each meditation starts with a little introduction to give some context. For the introduction of the third session, Andy, who guides the meditation, talks about this very topic of receiving the advice to stay positive. In about 30 seconds, he untangled the whole thing for me. Here’s what he said:
It’s really important to help create the conditions for ease in the mind. Look at the kind of language we’re using in the mind. It’s tempting or we may be encouraged to always think in a very positive way. The truth is, for most people in this situation, we don’t feel positive all the time, and that’s okay. We don’t need to add another layer of pressure saying we must think in a positive way all the time and if not, it’s somehow bad. The essence of mindfulness is to allow the mind to express itself. Knowing that thoughts are just thoughts… we don’t control them. They arise in the mind, and unless react to them, they simply dissolve. They disappear. More thoughts will arise, but they are different thoughts. So if we stay in this place, of just observing, witnessing, we don’t need to control the dialogue. It’s interesting to witness the type of language that arises in the mind, but regardless of whether the thoughts are pleasant or unpleasant or neutral… regardless of whether the feelings are pleasant unpleasant or neutral, our role in this process is to simply get comfortable with witnessing the coming and going of all of it. It’s an idea of not judging anything, but just witnessing.– Headspace Cancer Series
This is the essence of meditation, and the way he put this in the context of “just stay positive” helped me process this conflict so much better for my meditations and any other part of the day. Yes, these thoughts will still arise, and now I just let the thought pass through. The goal is not to prevent a negative thought from arising. Just don’t dwell on it. I once heard someone talk about thoughts coming in like emails into your inbox. You don’t really control which emails come in, but you can choose which ones you read and respond to. If I received an email with a subject line “all the reasons this sucks,” I don’t need to analyze it and give a detailed response to further reinforce, evolve, and give more power to those thoughts. Just mark as read and move on. If a negative email shows up in my inbox, it’s not a defective inbox. I just avoid dwelling on it. With that said, there may come a time that I struggle to avoid dwelling on a negative thought. That’s not a failure. It might be a sign that I need to talk to someone about it. In that case, it may be a good time to talk to a friend or therapist about the subject.
So, yes, I believe it’s helpful to focus on the positive. It’s just not helpful to put the pressure on yourself to only be positive all the time. This is all about the lens through which you receive the advice to “just stay positive.” My new lens has already helped me in coping with cancer, and I know it will help me with future challenges as well.