Nov 24

A Bit of Cheating on a Sunday Morning

In case you missed it, I spent 8 hours in the ER yesterday. I’m fine, it hurts, but it’s stupid and fine and NOT CANCER.

In my draft folder, I have several serious posts about living with cancer, but I can never seem to massage them just right. Yet while I was in the wifi/cell dead zone of the ER yesterday, both Mrs. Figby and my friend IH sent me links to this excellent post on Gawker: Positivity is Bullshit When you Have Cancer. I know several of you have already read it. I highly encourage the rest of you to read it too. But I’ll just pick out a few particularly meaningful sentences to me (this is the cheating I was referring to, since I’m using this as the core of my post):

The vehemence with which people insist that “positivity is the best medicine” when they catch wind of my misery—not difficult to sniff out since I’ve got one major silent-but-deadly depression cloud following me—makes me want to explode.


Cancer patients are expected to be poster children of a movement, meant to reassure the masses that this plague, and even imminent death, can be overcome with positive affirmations and attitude adjustments.


I am the unpleasant face of cancer. I am not accepting pain and loss gracefully. I am a disappointment.


But a positive mental attitude does not cure cancer—any more than a negative mental attitude causes cancer.” We need to stop blaming cancer patients and start supporting their emotional needs.

Now, let me just say that I am trying to be positive as much as possible. What is hard the pressure to be positive. The sheer terror on a person’s face when they catch you on a not-so-good day and they want to run away from a conversation because they can’t deal with your negativity. You know what? I don’t get to run away from the cancer!

A well-meaning person told me that I can’t make everything cancer-related. That not everything that happens to me (in this case the back pain) is necessarily due to cancer. Which is true. And in this case, on a Sunday morning, after a well-medicated night of sleep, I can see that back pain is just back pain. But let me tell you, on the 3rd day that I couldn’t sit on a chair, when the pain wasn’t being helped by good old over-the-counter meds, my mind went there: to metastasis. I wrote ‘letters to my daughters’ in my head, I made a short bucket-list. Because once you have cancer, you always have cancer. Maybe after the 5 year mark you can take a breath, I don’t know, but right now, everything is tainted with cancer.



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  1. Anna in Turin

    Personally I think you’ve been dealing with all of this better than I ever would. Heck after three days of back pain I would’ve thought cancer too! You don’t have plain back pain, you have bulging disc, it friggin’ hurts, you can’t sit, you can’t lie down, you can’t walk, you can’t do anything without feeling constant pain. I had it last winter and it took 4 months of physiotherapy and lots of codeine+tylenol, cortisone and steriods to finally get rid of the pain.

    F**k all of those who expect you to be positive and smiling cause you’re fighting the good fight….you have flippin’ cancer and two young daughters to raise.

    sending you big hugs,

  2. Amy/grrlTravels

    It makes me sad that you wrote letters to your daughters in your head, but I completely understand. I would have too. The quotes you’ve listed were some of my favorites from the essay too, especially “Cancer patients are expected to be poster children of a movement, meant to reassure the masses that this plague, and even imminent death, can be overcome with positive affirmations and attitude adjustments.” So true, and yet so unfair.

  3. Liz

    How could you not wonder if the back pain was mets? Holy crap. You’d have to be an ostrich or pollyanna or stupid not to go there.

    The positivity shit drives me crazy, because of exactly what the poster says: positive thoughts can’t cure cancer any more than negative thoughts can cause it. It was the same with infertility, really– people would say stupid, insulting, horrible shit thinking that it was better to say anything than to say nothing. Well, not really. And blaming someone for their disease or lack of response to treatment is NEVER acceptable. It is bullshit. It is right up there with telling someone to pray when they are sick, the implication being that somehow god can and will cure you if you are enough in favor. I know, for some people it is just a comfort thing, but for a fuck of a lot of people it really is “god will cure you if you believe in the right religion” which is so offensive I can’t even begin to talk about it without screaming.

    OK. I will stop, before I hijack the blog to yell about religion. I won’t do that.

    I would have thought the same thing, and I really think anyone sane and realistic and aware of what was really going on in their body would have thought the same thing.

    And I had two discs rupture a few years ago. The pain was indescribable, and the months of pain before were pretty fucking bad. I hope that as you are up and more and more mobile and fit that damned disc behaves and stops bulging so much. Nerve pain sucks. It really is awful.

  4. Gaby

    I think people want cancer patients to be “positive” so that they won’t be a “downer” to them. They don’t want cancer patients being anything but “positive”, so they can continue to live in denial that death awaits us all. It isn’t so much that they believe, or want to believe, that a deadly disease can be overcome “with positive affirmations and attitude adjustments” – it’s just that they don’t want to be reminded of their own mortality.

    Plus, there’s a lot of stories out their of people who overcame terrible illnesses/tragedies/hardships (not “got cured of”, but “were able to cope with”) through faith/positive thinking – so they think, “If THEY can do it, so can you; so if you don’t, it’s your own fault.” Which is completely bogus, because what those stories leave out are all the times the “heroes” DIDN’T cope, where their faith/positive thinking failed them and they, too, were reduced to snarling grouches and/or quivering piles of sobbing misery. Stories like that over-simplify what is ALWAYS a complex process, and they set-up false, and even HARMFUL, expectations that EVERYONE with cancer should be a saint! It doesn’t dawn on them that maybe THEY should be the saints by being strong and supportive to their acquaintances with cancer!

  5. Nance

    I would have gone there too. I can’t imagine being totally positive all of the time. It would drive me insane.
    I agree that we (the general public and friends) need to accept and support cancer patients emotional needs.

  6. ieh21

    Every day I do my work, looking to finance projects from university researchers who are looking for new ways to fight cancer, I think “jeez louise, people REALLY don’t get it.” By people, I mean those who believe that eating blueberries, realigning your chakras or even just not smoking will keep you cancer-free. And I also mean those people who think that Big Pharma is in a quiet conspiracy against finding drugs that are efficient against cancer because it would be the end of a cash-cow (i.e. if everyone was cured, there’d be no buyers for their meds.) Cancer is a real F#$%ER.

    But even in a case where the cancer offers you a better prognostic, for god’s sake, what you are facing is the end of your life. How can you possibly be in a good mood about that? We all die, for sure. But this is different. Being positive all the time means you don’t understand what’s going on (and maybe that’s a blessing in a way), or you are so at peace with the potential outcome, that you have reached a Zen Master level I can’t even imagine exists.

    What also bothers me about the positivity argument is that people don’t realise the cost of positivity. I knew someone who was very positive, upbeat, to the point where people were wondering how bad he really was, the week before he died. And I also know what it was like when everyone wasn’t there, the cost of that veil was high for that person and the person closest.

    Being honest about your feelings is the way to go, IMO. Of course reaching the bottom of despair and remaining there is unpleasant, not just for others, but for you too. I wish you decades of fighting this, yet I don’t wish you decades of being unhappy and freaked out and scared. But looking at reality, especially in the context of a physical fear, and thinking “I’m scared, this is scary”, and needing someone to hold you, or just sit with you for a while, that’s healthy.

  7. Aimee

    I was an oncology nurse and then hospice for many years. I have also lost family to cancer, and my brother is a fabulous survivor. I HATE it when people tell a cancer patient to be positive. a) you can’t control how you’re going to feel and B) if you have a relapse, you are more likely to feel it’s your fault because you weren’t positive enough. Great. I tell people as often as I can not to send someone a guilt trip as a gift.

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