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Man covering his sad face with a happy mask

Pushing a Positive Attitude Not Helpful to Cancer Patients

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.”

The takeaway

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.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Blood-Cancer.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Accept, Retreat & Surrender: How to Heal Yourself. Bernie Siegel, MD. Available at http://berniesiegelmd.com/2017/03/accept-retreat-surrender-how-to-heal-yourself/
  2. https://bcaction.org/2009/12/21/book-excerpt-bright-sided-how-the-relentless-promotion-of-positive-thinking-has-undermined-america/
  3. Joseph, D. et al. Optimism and survival in lung carcinoma patients. Cancer. Available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15022297
  4. Aitkenhead, D. Siddhartha Mukherjee: 'A positive attitude does not cure cancer, any more than a negative one causes it.' The Guardian. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/dec/04/siddhartha-mukherjee-talk-about-cancer

Comments

  • bluchs
    2 months ago

    I actually, believe that a positive attitude is very important to recovery.
    I have been very sad and depressed for a long time.
    Migraine headaches every day, along with all of the other pain, revolving around cancer.
    But My son is building me a cottage on his property.
    He bought me a 31′ trailer to put on his property so I can be there until the cottage is built.
    WOW!
    I will be moving there in a few weeks, Once he has electric etc. hooked up.
    But he simple fact is.
    That ever since he bought this trailer, and this is now about to be a reality.
    I have not had a migraine, Not Once.
    So I do believe that a positive attitude and good mental health is imperative to recovery?
    At least for me, plus my over all pain level, has gone from about 7.5 ( out of 1 to 10, 10 being the worst ) to 6.
    So I guess, I am Blessed.
    Good Mental health, for Me works.

  • Jim Smith moderator
    2 months ago

    @ronnigordon I think it’s good to be positive and hopeful when we can. But taking it to the extreme by thinking we are damaging our health if we feel down just puts a burden on us that we don’t need. If we can occasionally get out of ourselves via movies or good books or laughing with family or friends – that is a big help. But we should never feel obligated to “Be Positive” all the time. We’ve got enough on our plate.

  • VinnieCent moderator
    4 months ago

    Over the years I’ve realized myself that this pressure to “be positive” is encouraged by other peoples needs to feel in control, and hopeful. As a survivor, being positive also was a clear symptom of survivors guilt.

    “Who am I to be hurt when I’m alive?” I often asked myself.

    The truth is that part of recovery is learning how to love and embrace every part of yourself. That is already a challenging feat even when cancer is not in the picture! Giving ourselves permission to acknowledge and embrace a full range of emotions goes a long way in the healing process.

  • Daniel Malito moderator
    4 months ago

    @ronnigordon I remember my mom pushing “Love, Medicine & Miracles” whjen I was a kid with my JRA. It has been around for a while and is pretty entrenched in some circles of illness care. A positive attitudde is work, though, and not hvaing one can be a stress if you think you are doing yourself harm, working against what you want in a vicious cycle. Keep on keepin’ on, DPM

  • Racheli Alkobey moderator
    4 months ago

    Hi! I really like this approach on the topic. As someone who kind of leaned in to positivity (and would do over), I think that there is technique and purpose to HOW we use positivity to heal. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to feel negative. I think the relief is that we have a core and an overall personality in regards to how we REACT and problem solve. BUTTTTT we are still allowed to access the low points in our hearts and should feel 100% comfortable to share and feel them. Just because I have negative thoughts sometimes doesn’t mean that I’m not a positive person, ya know?

  • Ann Harper moderator
    4 months ago

    This is an eye opener for me. I believe in having a positive attitude and using my cancer as a learning experience. Thinking about people who have a different experience and stress themselves out trying to be positive I belueve would cause more harm than good. I guess you just have to fight and hope for the best. This post really gave me something to think about.

  • bluchs
    4 months ago

    Ronni
    I agree with you.
    It is sometimes impossible to have a positive attitude, with all we have to go through to fight this cancer we have.
    If we had to stay positive all of the time, than what would we do about our pain and our fear of the unknown?
    Stay positive??
    What is there to be positive about??
    I would think that knowing the possibilities of what we are up against.
    And fighting the best way we are able to.
    Plus for Me Prayer.
    Is all we can do.
    I do not believe that positivity is the key to beating cancer.
    I think it is more about, good friends, family, God, and just doing the best we can, as we are able too!
    I just don’t see the positivity in any of what we are going through, I just don’t.

  • Carolyn B
    3 months ago

    I’d agree with you on the positivity bit. If that approach helps others, fine. Just don’t push it on me. It is tougher though when your oncologist expects that (as one of mine did).

  • Ann Harper moderator
    4 months ago

    Family, friends, and God are certainly important.

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