Pushing a Positive Attitude Not Helpful to Cancer Patients
Last updated: October 2023
In “Love, Medicine and Miracles,” the surgeon Bernie Siegel writes about a group of “exceptional cancer patients” whose positive attitude helped them heal.1
When I read it while in the hospital getting my first round of chemotherapy in 2003, it made me uneasy. I wondered, what if I wasn’t positive enough?
What if I was in a bad mood, or depressed, or sad, or scared? Would my chances of remission from acute myeloid leukemia be diminished? I already had enough to deal with, without worrying that my attitude wasn’t right. Sure, sometimes I was positive, but I couldn’t promise to be consistently upbeat, nor did I want to be.
Illness as opportunity?
Then, there was this: In a blog post with the subhead “How to Heal Yourself,” the surgeon wrote, “If you view illness as an opportunity, then when you get sick, you can ask yourself, ‘Okay, what can I learn from this disease. What do I need to look at first?’”1
What if I didn’t consider getting leukemia to be an opportunity?
It was too much pressure. I needed my strength to get through the chemotherapy and the ensuing fevers, chills, shakes, vomiting and diarrhea.
My social worker understood. In fact, she said, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute didn’t even have his books in the library. They put too much pressure on patients to fit into a mold.
Positive thinking helpful some of the time
Positive thinking can help…at times. I wouldn’t do yoga if I didn’t believe in the mind-body connection. But the positive thinking movement does a disservice to patients, and to their friends and family. If someone doesn’t make it, does that mean they weren’t positive enough?
Barbara Ehrenreich, a breast cancer survivor and author of “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America,” puts it well.
“Rather than providing emotional sustenance, the sugarcoating of cancer can exact a dreadful cost,” she writes. “First, it requires the denial of understandable feelings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer. This is a great convenience for health workers and even friends of the afflicted, who might prefer fake cheer to complaining, but it is not so easy on the afflicted.”2
No survival benefits
When a 2004 study of lung cancer patients found no survival benefits in optimism, its lead author, Penelope Schofield, wrote, “Encouraging patients to ‘be positive’ only may add to the burden of having cancer while providing little benefit.”3
And Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning “Emperor of All Maladies,” said this when an interviewer asked him whether a positive attitude can cure cancer:
"I think it does a nasty disservice to patients. A woman with breast cancer already has her plate full, and you want to go and tell her that the reason you're not getting better is because you're not thinking positively? Put yourself in that woman's position and think what it feels like to be told your attitude is to blame for why you're not getting better."
The interviewer from The Guardian newspaper wanted to know if it is true.4
"No, I think it's not true,” Mukherjee replied. “In a spiritual sense, a positive attitude may help you get through chemotherapy and surgery and radiation and what have you. But a positive mental attitude does not cure cancer – any more than a negative mental attitude causes cancer."
What does this mean for you, the reader, and for me?
It means that we don’t have to feel any certain way.
And that, for me at least, is a relief.
How do you feel about your support system?