Today I spoke to three people affected by cancer. One was a senior man who has just completed his treatments. Another was a widow whose husband died recently. And another was a parent whose adult child is living with cancer. In all three cases the conversation, driven by them, was about attitude. There is an emerging consensus that a positive attitude can make all the difference. This is clear a positive change from the past. When I began my Ministry in 1990 cancer was a death sentence. Even those who had operations, treatments and lived for decades cancer-free would live as if they were dying. Trips would be cancelled, they would resign from commitments. These survivors would stay home just waiting to die.
Thank goodness we have moved away from that paradigm. Today we are talking openly about cancer, we tell our friends. We don’t try to hide it. I particularly like the black beanies women and men wear when the hair falls out. It looks stylish and it preaches, “I have cancer, I am alive, and I intend to stay that way!”
But I worry that we are setting up an expectation that will lead those with real worry and anxiety to go underground and pretend they are doing better than they really are. Why shouldn’t someone with cancer be worried or upset or emotional? Isn’t that normal? If I was told I was dying with any other disease I would react with shock and pain and hurt. So why wouldn’t the same hold for cancer? Why have we set up this false expectation that humans can assume a positive attitude totally out of proportion to the reality of the situation? It is good to be positive, it is good to live life, it is good to keep plugging away and doing the things we love. But surely it is OK to cry, to be angry and to express worry.
What really upsets me is hearing some cancer survivors peddling this message to newly diagnosed persons with the words, “if you say positive you’ll beat the cancer.” Really? What that says to the newly diagnosed is this, “if the cancer does return it must be my fault for being too negative.” Great, not only does the person have to deal with cancer, now s/he has to live with the guilt that if they let their positive attitude wane ever so slightly they might bring the cancer back to themselves. How cruel to send this message.
I think maintaining one’s life, being attentive to all the people, things and places that were life-giving before the cancer diagnosis one certainly enhances one’s state of mind, one’s coping mechanism, one’s happiness. But I don’t think cancer returns to people because they stopped being positive all the time. Further, healing people need space and support to share their pain and anxiety. Taking that away from them is not helpful to their recovery.
Here is what I believe about cancer recovery and the motivation we need to live on:
Cancer is so limited…
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot destroy peace.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot suppress memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot steal eternal life.
It cannot conquer the spirit.
It cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.