OK, Cancer is a gloomy subject — there’s no pretending it’s not. But often, our instinct is to over-emphasize the proverbial “silver lining.” Positive thinking at its best is an expression of hope in hard times. And while positivity itself is not a bad thing — it’s certainly more enjoyable than fixating on the negative — it can be problematic if it distorts the reality of what someone’s going through.
Americans like to think of themselves as “positive” people. Our culture is steeped in positive thinking — from self-help books to Harvard courses to the ubiquitous mention of the American Dream. After all, there is no dislike button on Facebook. But for a cancer patient, being bombarded with wild optimism for its own sake can sometimes achieve the opposite of its intended effect.
When I was first diagnosed, my close friends and family tried to put on a brave face, but instead of making me feel better, it sometimes made me feel more alone: was I the only person who felt scared, confused, and angry? I had cancer — why did everyone insist upon avoiding the topic?
Barbara Ehrenreich explores the negative effects of positive thinking in her recent book Bright-Sided. “We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles,” she writes, “both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.” Ehrenreich isn’t against lightness or laughter, but instead, she urges us to consider how positivity and denial can go hand in hand.
While our instinct can be to immediately steer conversations with cancer patients towards the cheerful, it’s critical for someone who is sick to feel comfortable venting feelings of fear, sadness, anger, loss, and isolation. Being honest about how a life-threatening illness can make you feel — both as a caregiver and the one being cared for — helps get rid of the elephant in the room by acknowledging its presence. One of the most important things you can do for a friend with cancer is to be an equal opportunity listener. Make it clear that you are willing to listen to both the good and the bad.