As a cancer patient, I think a lot about how we talk about illness — or more often, how we talk around it. Even the word “cancer” is ugly, scary, burdensome — a roadblock for a conversation before it even starts. Who wants to go there? Much of the time, I’d rather not bring it up if I don’t have to — and I’m the one with the disease!
When the topic is a life-threatening disease, the instinct — for both the patient and non-patient — is often to freeze, and try to come up with a positive spin.
“I’m trying to think positive!” I’ll tell a friend, after listing the symptoms I’m having.
“I’m staying strong!” I’ll write in a text message.
“It’s tough, but I can do this,” I’ll say when I’m having an especially hard day.
No one coached me to say these phrases. So where did they come from? In the middle of chemotherapy, when I’m feeling my worst, why do I feel the need to inject these little nuggets of positivity into conversation?
Our culture is steeped in positive thinking — from the self-help mega-industry to college courses in positive psychology to the enduring pull of the American dream. There is no “dislike” button on Facebook. Nobody wants to be a downer.
But I don’t think it’s all cultural. When it comes to disease, I think the “positivity spin zone” is a force of nature. First, we want to protect the people we love. Cancer makes people think about mortality. It scares your friends and family. And many cancer patients, consciously or otherwise, try to buffer bad news with a dose of positivity. Putting a positive twist on how things are going is a way to convey hope. We want to be strong, to put on a brave face for our loved ones. Positivity is a signal that everything is going to be all right, even if no one knows that for sure.
The second reason, I’ve come to realize, is to protect ourselves. There’s no denying that cancer is a gloomy subject. We repeat positive phrases to ourselves as a sort of mantra. And while positive thinking alone can’t cure cancer, attitude is critical to getting through the process and growing as a person. We voice positivity as a show of strength in the face of the unknown. It’s a daily note to self: I’m going to beat this.
But while I have learned a lot since my diagnosis — and I am trying to be hopeful for the future — living with cancer is also just really, really hard. We don’t always talk about those times. We self-censor many parts of the journey. And when we do speak about it, we often find ourselves framing any negative thoughts in a more positive way.
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