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The Limitations of a Positive Attitude

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It happened again at a holiday party this weekend. Someone asked me, their eyes wide with the hope of commiseration, if I didn’t agree that having a positive attitude is critical to overcoming cancer. My husband, a larger person and personality than I, jumped in with a joke, and only I knew he was doing this to protect me from having to answer. He knows the paradox of my less-than-positive attitude about the power of positive attitudes. 

Here is my answer: No, I don’t think that having a positive attitude helps you overcome cancer. In fact, there is no scientific evidence to show that attitude helps you overcome disease. And if you don’t believe the science, just think of your own experience. How many lovely people die of cancer and other horrendous diseases every day? How many crotchety bastards smoke and drink their way into curmudgeonly old age?  

I am asked this question frequently. I have come by my credibility on this count honestly. Because I recently had—and recovered from—breast cancer. And in spite of my answer, I am considered a very positive person.

The truth is that my answer has nothing to do with science. As I explained to this somewhat startled person at the cocktail party, it has to do with the woman in my oncologist’s office who had the same kind of super crappy, super aggressive breast cancer at the same time as I did. I never met this woman. But I heard about her. Because while my tumor responded to chemotherapy by retreating like the last late snows under the early summer sun, hers, well, it grew. Under the same regimen. While I was fortunate to need only a lumpectomy, they had to stop her chemo, give her a mastectomy, and then restart chemo. 

I don’t know this woman. But I bet she had a perfectly nice attitude about life. If I am going to take some kind of personality bonus points for the retreat of my nasty tumor—which we dubbed Bertha Church—then I am by default implying that this other woman wasn’t positive enough or upbeat enough or hopeful enough to beat her own cancer. I won’t do that to her, or to Elizabeth Edwards, or to the millions of other women facing breast cancer. Or people facing any kind of cancer.

Some months before I found the mass of hardened tissue in my right breast, a woman I was chatting with at a restaurant made this comment: “I know,” she said, definitively, “what causes breast cancer.” “Really?” I asked, somewhat alarmed. “Yes,” she said. “It’s having a negative attitude.”

I was appalled. I tried to be polite and point out the incredible burden she was putting on anyone diagnosed with this disease by implying that they somehow gave themselves cancer. I mean, one in seven woman will get breast cancer—are you telling me they all had crappy attitudes?

This is not to say that I recommend having a bad attitude. While I didn’t experience much anger—chemo made me too tired for that—I’m sure it has its uses. And while I somehow get credit from friends, family, and neighbors for having had a “good” attitude, I don’t really recall it that way. What I remember most from those dark ten months of treatment was being scared. Every day, every experience, registered on me as potentially borrowed time. Sure, I went ahead with the life I had, showing up everywhere from the gym to parties, readings, lectures, and dates with my husband, bald. But don’t be mistaken: I was terrified of that mass of rapidly growing rogue cells.

In fact, I’m still scared. I’ve lost what I refer to as my “cancer innocence.” I now know that a life of healthy habits and no risk factors or family history is no cancer protective. Like having your heart broken for the first time even though you were the perfect girlfriend, I cannot return to that more naive state. I worry that an ache is cancer in a bone. I’m reluctant to touch my breasts for fear of finding a lump. I wonder if I’ll be around to see my husband grow old. For the first time ever, I want time to speed up, just in the hopes of getting to that five year mark sooner. 

I give my fears the time and space they deserve. But no more than they deserve. I write, I walk, I love, I live. The Buddhists have a saying: Do not suffer over your suffering. So every time I feel the fear, I say hello, let the terrors talk for a few moments, and then I go back to that other list. I do not let my fear of death pollute my love of life. Because while having a so-called positive attitude may not cure cancer, it sure makes the days while we wait for a cure a hell of a lot more fun! 



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