"Having an Attitude" About Attitude

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Before the recent Academy Awards show, my husband and I were watching an interview on one of the talk shows. I can’t remember who was being interviewed or even what show it was. I must still be suffering from some of that lingering chemo brain. But then, my husband says he can’t remember either…veering off topic here; chemo brain/partner’s chemo brain is another day’s topic.

What I do vividly remember is who and what they were discussing. It was Michael Douglas and his recent throat cancer treatment. I have been paying close attention to Michael Douglas' cancer story since he underwent chemotherapy about the same time I did. The comment that made both my husband and me bristle a bit went something like, Michael is doing really, really well (yes, two “reallys”) because he’s such a “champion.” He’s got such a great attitude.

Bristle, bristle. We hear stuff like this all the time.

So, does this mean only people with good attitudes beat cancer? Or, if you just stay positive enough, things will turn out fine?? Of course not. Everyone knows this isn’t really true.

My mother had a great attitude. She was a real “champion” herself in many ways, not just in her cancer. Elizabeth Edwards I’m pretty sure had a darn good attitude, until she was just too sick to be optimistic about anything. There are countless people stricken with cancer that had superbly good attitudes, but still did not survive.

Their positive attitudes did not save them.

So why do well-meaning people keep saying things like “a positive attitude will make all the difference," or "at least you’ve got a good attitude”? In my opinion, it’s because in the whole “messiness of cancer,” attitude is perceived to be the one thing you can control. But this isn’t always necessarily true either. Sometimes a cancer patient does not have a good attitude. Sometimes they feel downright miserable in the attitude department. In fact, depression is a very common experience. Making people feel guilty for not always feeling positive can be very dangerous. Guilt is rarely productive.

I am a firm believer in the power of a positive attitude. As a teacher, I have to be. A positive attitude can make a huge difference in many situations, maybe even in most situations. I think we should always strive to have positive attitudes. I attempt to keep my blog “positive.” I just don’t believe a positive attitude is as significant as we are sometimes led to believe in regard to surviving cancer or any serious illness.

I think people survive cancer because they discover it early, have health insurance and jobs to pay for that insurance. People survive cancer because they have competent oncologists and get treatment. People survive cancer because their particular treatment works for their particular cancer. People survive cancer because they have support systems in place and sometimes simply because they are lucky and their cancer for whatever reason doesn’t metastasize or ultimately kill them.

 I don’t think their attitudes ultimately have that much to do with it.

My biggest issue with this whole positive attitude spin in the cancer realm is the implied hidden message that if a patient’s attitude isn’t “good enough,” then it’s somehow their fault if things don’t turn out well for them.

If the premise holds true that a positive attitude is why you thrive/survive, then the reverse would hold true as well wouldn’t it? It’s kind of like balancing both sides of a math equation. A “bad” attitude would likewise mean you are responsible if you don’t thrive/ survive??

Of course this is not true. But there is an unintentional, yet inferred message, in there that says just that.

This kind of logic, even if only possibly inferred, to me is dangerous. This kind of thinking can make a patient feel guilty for things totally out of their control. Cancer patients don’t need anything more to feel guilty about. They feel plenty of guilt already.

I don’t wish to begrudge Michael Douglas anything, much less his positive attitude. I'm actually a fan of his. I’m glad he has a positive attitude. I really am. I’m happy he’s doing well. I’m happy whenever I hear any cancer patient is doing well. I just don’t feel the positive attitude theory holds much water when you are speaking about surviving cancer or any serious illness.

What kind of cancer you get and how it turns out feels to me more like a “hit or miss, luck of the draw” kind of thing. Maybe I’m being too cynical or oversensitive here.

Or maybe I just have a “bad attitude.”