17
Sep
08

September 17, 2008

Today I’ve been thinking about optimism and pessimism, in general as they relate to having cancer, and specifically as they relate to *me* having cancer.

Friends and family have told me, especially since the recurrence, that they are impressed with my positive attitude in the face of having cancer (thank you!).  I guess that it comes across that way, as a positive attitude, or optimism; but in my own head, I’m just living my life the same as I always have (with the exception of a lot more doctor appointments than usual), and dealing with a bad situation in the only way I know how, of facing it head on, and ruling it, rather than letting it rule me.

Historically, that was not the way I dealt with bad situations, and I’ve seen first-hand how escapism, denial, recreational drugs and alcohol, and a very pessimistic outlook on life, myself, and society made my life worse as I avoided dealing with problems, and merely wallowed in my own “helplessness”, ruled by the problem.

But I will concede that not being pessimistic is in its own way a form of optimism.  In the sense that I believe that statistics on breast cancer are in favor of me surviving, and that treatment will (eventually!) control or even rid my body of cancer, I am falling on the positive side of the optimism/pessimism scale – that I believe the glass is half full, rather than half empty.  I certainly have met people who have heard the same statistics, but still believe that their stage 1, non-metastasized cancer is a tragedy, and is a death sentence.  And because they believe it is a tragedy, it is.

I don’t mean to make light of anyone’s fear of cancer or fear of death – cancer is scary stuff, and I have had times when I was very scared, sad, depressed, worried, and wondered if I would survive.  But again, by not believing it is tragic, it isn’t tragic for me.  I also don’t mean that I believe that by being optimistic or pessimistic one sways whether or not one survives; I just mean that we experience cancer and its treatment the same way we experience life.  If we think of life as scary and bad, we will certainly perceive our experience of it as scary and bad.  Some people’s lives really fall into the scary-and-bad category, and my heart goes out to them; but a lot of people (me for one, at least in my youth) look at their lives and see unhappiness, believe the world is out to get them, and live their life accordingly.  And if we think of cancer and its treatment as scary and bad, it will be.

(I could write a whole ‘nother post about how I moved from a pessimistic world view to a non-pessimistic world view – the short version: Thank god for Brian, and for my own choice to start facing life directly and with a different attitude.  I also credit “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz for helping me reshape my life by reshaping the way I perceive my interactions with others.)

But when does optimism become “irrational exuberance”?  When is it denial and/or escapism?  Even though there are definitely books and blogs and websites, oh my, that claim that you can beat cancer with a positive attitude, studies have shown that this is *not* the case.  Does that mean that you shouldn’t have a positive attitude, that it is simply denial to be optimistic in the face of a cancer diagnosis?

Mayo Clinic debunks the cancer myth that:

A positive attitude is all you need to beat cancer.

Although many popular books on cancer talk about fighters and optimists, there’s no scientific proof that a positive attitude gives you an advantage in cancer treatment or improves your chance of being cured.

What a positive attitude can do is improve the quality of your life during cancer treatment and beyond. You may be more likely to stay active, maintain ties to family and friends, and continue social activities. In turn, this may enhance your feeling of well-being and help you find the strength to deal with your cancer. A positive attitude may also help you become a more informed and active partner with your doctor during cancer treatment.

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So I guess I will choose to keep landing on the positive-attitude/optimistic side of the bar, even if it feels in my head and my heart as if I’m just being me.  And I will take inspiration from the women I know with stage 4 metastatic cancer, who face life, and death, with optimism and not as if it is a tragedy.

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