October 1, 2008

Revisiting my post about optimism vs. pessimism, and the benefits of having a positive attitude:

I’ve been thinking about it since then, and what constitutes pessimism and optimism.

I ran across a blog post by Donna Trussell called Cancer Is So Limited? I Beg to Differ. I laughed out loud – she is a good writer with an acerbic sense of humor. I also thought “This is a very angry woman”. Reading later posts confirmed that in my mind.

Cancer makes you angry. Call it one of the stages of grief, call it a reaction to fear, call it stress releasing itself in emotion; anger it is. Cancer makes you feel a lot of emotions, most of which you’d rather not feel – fear, grief, anger, sadness, isolation, despair.

With Breast Cancer Awareness month upon us, you can’t turn your head without bumping your nose into pink products, billboards, news articles/videos, e-mails, and yes, blog posts, most touting the message to *do your self-exams!*. But even the media, for all that it wants to promote the “look at the pretty survivors, you can too!” idea, cuts the message with harsh ingredients, like the video I saw today on CNN.com called “Help for Cancer Victims”.

If that little word “victim” doesn’t make a cancer patient despair, then it will probably make them angry.

And this is the thing about optimism and pessimism – anger is not the opposite of hope. Both hope and anger are on the side of not being a victim. If you can’t feel warm and fuzzy about having cancer, get angry! Don’t let cancer victimize you, and don’t let the “positive attitude Nazis” victimize you either. You don’t have to feel positive feelings about getting cancer, fighting cancer, surviving cancer. All you have to do is get through it, and if getting angry helps, be angry.

It’s what you do with the anger, though, that counts. If you use it to focus on the fight, and on survival, anger can be a positive emotion and a positive force. If you use it to bludgeon the people who want to help you, then it might destroy you if the cancer doesn’t get you.

I can attest to cancer causing one to be angry – when I had my worst fears confirmed by the biopsy results this August, I was furious at the surgeon who didn’t get it all, at the doctors who decided I didn’t need radiation the first time, at the failure of the chemotherapy to kill off the remaining cancer cells, at having maimed my body for nothing.

But after allowing myself to feel the anger, the sense of unfairness, the “why me” (shit happens, that’s why), I chose to let go of these feelings, and focus on being me. I still don’t see the positive attitude that others perceive in me – I’m just living my life, rather than living my disease. The same things that made me laugh before make me laugh now; the things that touched my heart before touch my heart now; the things that made me angry before, well, some of them still make me angry, others I’m learning aren’t so important.

In her latest post, The Stupid Cancer Show, Trussell writes about the lies one hears as a cancer patient. One of the types of lies is “other cancer survivors lie to you”, which would also mean that they’re lying to themselves.

“Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Some of the people in my support group talk about how cancer turned their lives around – and I think they really believe it, rather than grasping at any frail straw that puts a positive spin on an extremely negative situation. I mean, they ought to know if they’re in a better place mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Is it the best thing that ever happened to *me*?


On the other hand, I can’t deny that it has made me re-evaluate priorities in my life, made me less inclined to take things for granted, helped me learn to connect with people better, and work to eliminate leftover destructive behaviors that I haven’t conquered yet. Will this last as I come out the other side of the Cancer Fun House? I certainly hope so, I plan on it, and I’m going to do my best to make it so. I feel sad that these positive changes took getting cancer to bring them on. If I were you, I’d just cut to the chase, make those life changes you keep thinking about, and skip the cancer.

And it definitely is not the best thing that ever happened to me – that, in one word, is Brian.

So I will continue to strive for the positive attitude spectrum, because it suits me, and who I want to be – not a shill of the cancer establishment, not a self-delusional cancer victim, not the me-with-cancer or the me-the-cancer-survivor, just me. That will no doubt include occasional bouts of anger, grief, and other negative emotions; but also laughter, joy, and love.

When I want to feel inspired and hopeful, I will visit Cancer Cannot Have Me.

When I need to come back to earth (or for a good laugh), I can always visit Donna Trussell or The Stupid Cancer Blog ;-}

2 Responses to “October 1, 2008”

  1. October 1, 2008 at 11:23 pm

    Thanks Julie. 🙂

    You’re quite right about not letting anger destroy you or your relationships. No matter how insensitive a remark, it’s best to remind yourself: I have a serious illness, and I’m likely to do better WITH my friends than without them.

    I’ve survived much longer than I thought possible, so I actually do feel some gratitude these days. However, watching other people get sicker still makes me mad. The inequities in cancer research/awareness for ovarian, pancreatic and other highly lethal cancers makes me mad. The trivialization of cancer still bothers me.

    I would agree that it’s a good idea to focus on positives — when you can. I write more about the negative emotions because that’s the part of cancer that gets ignored/denied in our culture, and I think that sweeping them under the rug only serves to heighten the loneliness of this very frightening disease.

    My friend (also named Julie) is as normal as they come. She’s a happily-married mother of three, former schoolteacher, and now a stage III breast cancer patient. One day she told me she felt terribly lonely. If Julie, who has more loving, devoted friends and family than anyone I know, feels that way, I have to believe it’s the disease, not the person.

    You take care. And when you get scared, you think about me. I was stage III ovarian with a 30 percent chance of survival. Out of some three dozen cell subtypes, I had the very worst kind — the most aggressive, and the most resistant to chemo — and that cut my already abysmal survival rate in half. And yet, I just celebrated my 7th year of survival and remission. My checkups are now once a year.

    Doesn’t necessarily mean I’m cured, but as the checkups got farther and father apart, I could feel joy returning to my life. And I realized how much I’d missed it.

  2. October 3, 2008 at 6:44 pm

    Hi Donna –

    I hope that you celebrate your 14th, your 21st, your 50th year of survival and remission, because I hope to be reading your blog that long.

    I also hope that you did not in any way construe my inclusion of your words in my blog as criticism, as I think you’re probably giving a more realistic view of how many (possibly the majority of) cancer patients experience the disease.

    And it’s important that people, those without cancer and especially those with, understand that it is OK to feel what they feel, positive or negative; and that they have to find the best way for them to get through the experience, and not feel as if they’re a failure if they get sick of hearing the “be braves” or want to ass-kick the Positive Attitude Nazis.

    You; my girlfriend Cathy who is a 6 year survivor of stage III ovarian cancer; my aunt and cousins who have had cancer; my friends from my support group who are stage III and stage IV survivors and patients; and women all over the news/blogs all give me hope and inspiration, as well as make me feel humble, when I see what you’ve faced, and I know I’ve had it easy compared to that. Each of the above has their own way of dealing with their own disease; and it has been my privilege to be there for some of them when they have had particularly dark times, as some of them (including some I only know through their written words) have been there for me during my dark times (and some will be there through the dark times to come, as treatment for my recurrence progresses).

    So I’m glad that you and others are out there writing about the realities of cancer, whether they’re positive or negative; it is one branch of the support that is out there for those of us with cancer; and hopefully a revelation for those without.

    Thank you for being there,

    Julie Martin

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