The Myth of the Cancer Warrior

What to say to loved ones who pressure you to fight cancer with a smile on your face.

Jen Singer
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It was my fourth day in the hospital for infusions of some of the most toxic chemotherapy drugs you can get. A nursing assistant arrived to take my blood pressure, and she sensed my sadness. “It’s okay to cry, you know,” she said. “You’ve been so busy trying to make everyone else feel good, but remember: You’re the patient.” I thought that if people saw me cry, they’d think I was weak—that I wasn’t a “cancer warrior.” I mean, the fighters are the ones who beat cancer, right?

Not necessarily. A study published in the journal Cancer found that a patient’s emotional state has no bearing on the outcome of cancer treatment. What’s more, the pressure to think on the bright side of things can lead to what Jimmie Holland, MD, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, calls “the tyranny of positive thinking.” In other words, you may feel guilty if you can’t be upbeat.

Here, how to respond to the positive-thinking police:

Your friend says: “Be strong or cancer will win.”
Your comeback: “Contrary to popular belief, I can’t cure my cancer with my thoughts.”

“Cancer patients are often made to feel guilty for not fighting hard enough, as though bright-sided thinking is more important than the right treatments or a qualified oncologist,” says Lori Hope, 58, author of Help Me Live: 20 Things People with Cancer Want You to Know (Random House Revised, 2011) and a lung cancer patient. Simply undergoing treatment is proof that you’re fighting for your life.

Your friend says: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
Your comeback: “Thanks, but I’ve been through the denial stage of grief.”

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you go through a grieving process. You may mourn the loss of a body part and possibly even fear for your life. Jane Fendelman, 52, a breast cancer survivor from Phoenix, admits she had dark thoughts while she underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, two lumpectomies and six weeks of radiation. When she told a friend she was ready to die, her friend pretended to slap her and shouted, Cher-like, “Snap out of it!”

Feeling down is a healthy reaction to what you’re experiencing. If you pretended that you didn’t mind what was happening to you, you’d be in denial, notes Miami psychologist Claudia Edwards, PhD.

Your friend says: “You’ve got to stay positive!”
Your comeback: “It’s more healing to know that my feelings are accepted.”

“A truly positive attitude honors all the experiences and feelings associated with your journey,” says Dr. Edwards. “You can feel happy or you can feel sad, but…no feeling is ‘bad.’ ” If you avoid your feelings, they will come back to haunt you, says Dr. Edwards. Cope with your stress by joining a support group, meditating or taking a walk.

January 2014