Literally the first thing I was told after being diagnosed with breast cancer was “You must remain positive”. My immediate response as a journalist was “But why?” The cancer nurse told me to think of all the good things in my life and how much I had to live for. Like if I didn’t I perhaps wouldn’t make it?!
The ‘cancer positivity’ phenomenon is something that has bugged me from the start. Why do people think it is so important to your outcome to remain positive? Why does everyone keep asking you if you’re a positive person? Where is the evidence that this is so important? By telling a cancer patient they must remain positive it’s like suggesting that if they don’t their treatment won’t be a success. I really have enough on my plate without the pressure of positivity.
A quick google will show you there is next to no evidence to connect personality traits or attitude to the risk of getting cancer and the outcome if you do get it. So why is there this pressure for those of us with cancer to paste on a smile and shout “I’ve got this…don’t panic everyone!!?” Now please don’t think that means I’ve been going through all this in a deep depression whilst worrying about dying every second. For the most part, as I’ve said before, I’ve just carried on as normal and laughed with my little boy, cried at sad films and got cross with the news. I have great days where I’m super positive and can look years into my future. And there are days when I’m not and I can’t.
The anxiety of positivity
And that’s OK. In the early days after diagnosis I really felt that pressure to remain positive from medical practitioners, friends, family and strangers. But here’s the thing, I come from a long line of worriers. We’re real professionals at it in my family – Chicken Licken has nothing on us.
I’ve even been officially diagnosed with anxiety which I’ve received treatment for in the past. When you’re told you have cancer it’s impossible to remain jolly 24/7. You are going to have down days where you worry about dying and feel utterly furious at the unfairness of your situation. On those days, I just could not stay positive and then I’d get into a terrible spiral of worry that because I’d spent a few minutes worrying about dying then I was negatively effecting the outcome of my treatment therefore making the very thing I was worrying about more likely to happen! Crazy.
Negativity is OK too
I’m well aware this is a ridiculous and unproductive thought cycle and this is why I’ve now rejected the whole ‘stay positive’ mantra. The turning point came with a few words from the brilliant Andy Puddicombe on the ever-helpful Headspace mindfulness app – you’ve got enough to deal with with cancer without the added pressure of staying positive the whole time. It’s ok to feel negative. Just recognise it as another emotion and wait for it to pass.
It’s OK to have days when you feel bad. It doesn’t mean you don’t want to smash your treatment out of the park and live for the next 100 years.
In no other illness is positivity bandied about as some sort of alternative cure. Cardiac patients aren’t told to ‘stay positive’ to avoid heart attack. No one tells you that a positive attitude can ward off dementia. So let’s give people with cancer a break and not add the need for staying relentlessly upbeat to their worries when they’re probably feeling just a bit shit!
I acknowledge there is a role for positivity to play in me getting through this though. While I don’t think it can cure me, I am approaching my treatment with a positive frame of mind. It’s that attitude that’s led me to overhaul my diet and nutrition, cut right back on alcohol and keep up exercising. All things that I hope will help in the long run.
I’m positive I will get through this. But I’ll do it on my own terms thank you very much. To quote one of the great orators of our time…Jessie J…it’s OK not to be OK.