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What Does Telling a Cancer Patient to “Just Stay Positive” Really Mean?

What does telling a cancer patient, just stay positive, really mean?

Perhaps such a comment is more about the person saying it than the one hearing it. Stick with me here.

The topic of maintaining a positive attitude during cancer treatment (and beyond) is one that comes up time and time again in Cancer Land. In fact, it comes up everywhere. Society seems obsessed with positivity, or so it seems to me.

In Cancer Land, there is this ongoing theme that no matter, what a cancer patient should always try to remain positive. Why this is, I do not know. I don’t mean to harp on this topic, but…

Recently, I’ve been thinking about this again probably due to my recent cancerversary (hate that term, but what the heck do I call it?), and because it’s always one of my hot-button topics.

You might want to read, How Do You Mark Cancerversaries, Or Do You?

I do not believe always aiming to maintain a positive attitude should necessarily be the gold standard for how to “properly” do cancer. That’s a lot of pressure. And no, I am not opposed to trying to feel positive when you’re up to it, but when you’re not I say, let the tears flow. Or the cuss words. Or whatever.

It’s the notion of almost insisting a particular emotion be felt and the presumption that positivity is always better that drive me nuts, and likewise, the perception that if you’re not feeling positive, well then, you’re being negative.

Why not just encourage genuineness?

It’s pretty darn clear that having a positive attitude does not mean a person will survive cancer longer. If this were true, cancer patients would likely be some of the most determined smilers on the planet.

But what exactly does telling a cancer patient to always remain positive, mean anyway?

And how exactly should a cancer patient (or anyone for that matter) go about doing this?

It’s all rather mystifying to me.

Of course, I don’t really believe anyone actually expects a cancer patient to ALWAYS remain positive, at least I hope not. But there does seem to be a general societal expectation that well, if you’re not giving off positive vibes, maybe you should rethink how you’re “doing” cancer or maybe even your life in general.

I cannot figure out why everything, even the super shitty stuff that happens to most of us, needs to be twisted around, reshaped and turned into a positive.

Shitty stuff is just that, shitty stuff. (I might have to get going on that, “Ten Shitty Things Cancer Taught Me” post!)

Update, here it is:  15 Shitty Things Cancer Has Taught Me

But again, what does, just stay positive, even mean?

It might be more about suggesting that cancer patients keep quiet about how they’re really feeling/doing.

Perhaps when people say, just stay positive, they really mean…

It might be better to keep your cancer truths under raps; no one really needs to know your truths, do they?

It makes me uncomfortable to hear all those gory details.

It’s too hard to be around you if you’re not upbeat.

I can’t handle this if you’re not positive. 

You should be over this by now, shouldn’t you?

And as for the other part of this discussion, helpful suggestions offered as to how a cancer patient is supposed to go about staying positive seem to be lacking.

Advice without ideas for implementation might not be that helpful here either.

Regardless, how does a cancer patient just stay positive when, in fact, she might feel like hell and be scared to death?

So what might be a better, simpler, less burdensome and far more helpful  “gold standard” for most cancer patients to hear and to aim for?

Be real. Be you. It’s enough.

Having cancer and navigating survivorship are hard enough.

No one should feel pressured to smile her/his way through either one.

Do you ever feel pressured to smile your way through everything, even cancer (and/or survivorship)?

What do you think is really meant when it’s suggested to above all else, just stay positive?

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 What Does Telling a Cancer Patient to Just Stay Positive Really Mean?

Christina Jue

Wednesday 30th of March 2022

I think all cancer survivors who even express a slightly negative feeling will encounter toxic positivity. It has been worse for me since I discovered bone mets than when I was diagnosed with stage 2, but the idea that I cannot express even the slightest doubt has been pervasive throughout my whole cancer journey. Is a really realistic take on this. I'm not Christian, but I feel a lot of what was being said by Kate Bowler.


Friday 1st of April 2022

Christina, I agree with you and I also appreciate Kate Bowler's insights.

Meredith Clark

Friday 29th of October 2021

A nurse(!) recently told me that it was important to have a positive attitude. I looked at her directly, and replied in a pleasant tone of voice "Actually, it's not. There is no proof that a positive attitude extends survival. At Stage 4, I cannot be positive but I can find things to be grateful for."


Tuesday 2nd of November 2021

Meredith, Good for you for speaking up and saying things that need to be said. I'm wondering what her reaction was.

Patricia Anderson

Monday 18th of June 2018

Please speak about all the religious and cold remarks family and people say to people diagnosed with cancer. I completed all treatment for Triple Negative stage two breast cancer six months ago. Lumpectomy, A/C, Taxol and Abraxane chemotherapy for six months and thirty-three radiation therapy. I have heard all comments from "at least you're alive, to Hallelujah God healed you from day one. If you believe you are healed, then you are. It's mind over matter. Be positive and love yourblife. It's over, etc. Wow. I even heard " if you believe you have cancer, then you will have it. Please write about the trauma of diagnosis, treatment and Post Traumatic Stress Diisorder (PTSD) survivor ship. I guess, there are no real words for cancer survivors, but some words hurt more than help.


Wednesday 20th of June 2018

Patricia, I have written about the things people say quite a few times, not religious things specifically, I guess. But the platitudes, I've written about those. I'll keep your suggestions in mind. Thank you.

Linda Boberg

Thursday 5th of April 2018

I really appreciate your blog, Nancy. I read everything you write and I'm working on your book, too. I have a hard time when people say "oh, your so courageous!" or 'you're a Hero." What choice did I have? And some days it is fucking hard to stay positive, isn't it? i am 4 years NED from Stage 3. Since then I've had a benign tumor, cataract surgery that went bad (after everyone said "oh, that's the easiest surgery ever!) and two weeks ago a stroke that has left me with more eye damage. The Cancer Shadow follows me for anything that goes wrong; they are always looking for MORE cancer. I blew up at a cardiologist who said, "You're lucky." Lucky? How in the hell am I lucky? Then I realized that she had not read any of my health history; she just wants to do a million heart tests. then she'll probably tell me that I was Lucky because I dodged a heart bullet. For me, trying to find positivity is harder as life goes on. Your blog helps me to keep going. Thank you.


Friday 6th of April 2018

Linda, Oh my, you've been dealing with a lot. And yep, that cancer shadow certainly lingers. I understand. Ditch the expectations and be real. Easier said than done, I know. Thank you for your kind words about my writing. It's always great to know someone is connecting with what I write. I hope you'll consider writing a review on Amazon when you finish it. Thanks again.


Wednesday 4th of April 2018

I am 5 years out from my diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer with 9 out of 17 lymph nodes malignant. I went through “red$0devil”, cytoxan and 30 radiation treatments. I opted to have a breast conserving surgery so many family and friends don’t feel that my cancer was bad since no mastectomy. Now I have metastasis in my lumbar , pelvic and sternum. All I hear now is “ it will be ok” even though all I think is now I am stage 4 and my treatment will be ongoing from now on. Even my husband says that it isn’t necessary for me to be online so much since all the adds about Ibrance says it is easier than “chemo”. I too try not to be negative, but I am a realist and find myself assuring everyone that I will be fine. Thank you Nancy for your blog, it is so on point.


Friday 6th of April 2018

Betty, It's too bad you find yourself in the position of assuring everyone else that you'll be fine. It shouldn't be your job to make others feel good, but of course, it's not quite that simple. Being a realist does not mean you're being negative. I hope you have somewhere or someone to turn to where you can be completely frank. You are always welcome to vent here. :) Thank you for sharing.

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