“Having an Attitude” About Attitude

Recently, Dear Hubby 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.

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 us both 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 true.

My mother had a great attitude. She was a real “champion” herself in many ways, not just regarding cancer. There are countless people with cancer who 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.

IMO, it’s because in the whole messiness of cancer, attitude is perceived to be the one thing you can control. But this isn’t 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.

Sure, I believe in the power of a positive attitude. What educator doesn’t? A positive attitude can make a huge difference in many situations, maybe even in most situations. It’s fine to try to stay positive, if you can and if you want to.

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.

People survive cancer because they discover it while it’s treatable, have access to healthcare and/or 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 her/his control. Cancer patients don’t need anything more to feel guilty about. They often 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.

What do you think?

How important do you think attitude is in surviving cancer or any serious illness?

Sign up for weekly updates from Nancy’s Point!


Having An Attitude about Attitude #cancer
 Michael Douglas 
"Having an Attitude" About Attitude #breastcancer #cancer #mentalhealth #advocacy

51 thoughts to ““Having an Attitude” About Attitude”

  1. Excellent post Nancy, and a fantastic (if unintended) follow-up to the recent Huffington Post article. I’m sure that many people would think that I have a “bad attitude” with all my ranting and raving. But you know what? My attitude energizes me, and reminds me of what it is that I am fighting for. My writing is the outlet, and in many respects I feel as if I am writing for my life. What could be a better motivator than that? Positive attitude has nothing to do with whether my cancer will continue to spread, or ultimately kill me. If that were the case then I think we could safely say we’ve found the cure for cancer, and everybody would be so happy, we could power the entire earth with all the sun shining out of our “you-know-whats”. Unfortunately right now, whether you really survive cancer is more of a case of dumb physiological luck. Science can’t yet tell us why some people make it and others don’t, but obviously there’s a reason, and I think this has to be one of the most important areas of research, but one that I am sure is sadly neglected. So, do I still have a smile on my face? Yes, most days. Am I angry about what has happened to me? Yes, everyday. But I think the two can co-exist and I would propose that a better term to describe the way I confront my cancer is just simply “attitude”.

    1. Anna, You summed things up well. Like you said, a person’s attitude has little to do with their “cancer outcome.” An attitude affects how we choose to deal with a diagnosis, treatment and ongoing life, but it does not determine if we beat cancer or not. This is an important distinction that seems obvious, but somehow has become clouded. Also, this positive attitude is not something one can or should be expected to constantly maintain. It isn’t a realistic expectation for anyone really. Thanks for your insights and I, for one, like your attitude, rants and raves included!

  2. Attitude helps but its not everything. Some people just give up when they have a bad diagnosis and never go back to the doctor. But is that what saves us? No. Its dumb luck basically, and health insurance. I sometimes say people like me who are lucky enough to get cancer… And I do use the word lucky because there just isn’t any other way to think about it that’s not negative. But my attitude isn’t saving me. Its just keeping me sane. Don’t get me started on the word ‘battling’

    1. Caroline, Thanks so much for commenting on this. I like your statement, “my attitude isn’t saving me, it’s just keeping me sane.” Perfect. And yes, I have another post coming on certain choice vocabulary words such as “battle.” Hope you’ll keep being part of the conversation.

  3. A positive attitude can go a long way and can make a big difference, though. I think we need to give positive thinking more credit.

    One thing that is irritating is how if the cancer patient is not showing a positive attitude all the time, then they are seen as “weak” or as though they have given up. How on earth can someone be positive all the time?

    1. Lindsay, Thanks for commenting. I certainly believe in a positive attiutude too, I just don’t like that hidden unsaid message that often accompanies the expectation. You said it perfectly, if a cancer patient doesn’t appear to be maintaining a positive attiuutde, they are often perceived to be weak, giving up or not trying hard enough.

  4. AMEN! That is something that really bothers me. Or that someone made it because he or she had ‘a lot to live for’. Doesn’t anyone think before they speak or write?! My mom was a positive person AND she surely had a lot to live for! But God had other plans for her, and I may never know why. But she definitely didn’t die because of her attitude. That is ridiculous! I do think a positive attitude is important, but it won’t make or break your experience with cancer. Positivity just makes the journey a little bit more bearable for the person and caregivers.

    1. Sami, Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I’m sure you heard more than your fair share of comments that were more than a bit “off.” Unfortunately, some people don’t think before they speak. Yes, your mother certainly didn’t die because of her lack of good attitude or not having enough to live for. You’re right, positivity makes things more bearable for all, but that’s about it.

  5. Excellant article Nancy and I couldn’t agree more! It always amazed me that once I got cancer, I was no longer allowed a “crabby” day! Good thing, by nature, I am a positive person. (smile)
    ps. Have you considered making this post into an article and submit it to any of the cancer magazines like CURE? (Just a thought and much needed message.)

    1. Kim, Thank you for reading and commenting here. I say, go ahead and have a few of those “crabby” days. You’re still entitled! And thanks for the suggestion. I’ll think about that.

  6. Yeah, this is a sensitive subject. I usually have a pretty bad attitude (I’m grumpy and I like it that way; I didn’t cry and wonder why I got cancer. I thought “well, of course I got cancer! That’s how my life goes!”) and it amazed me when people kept telling me I had such a positive attitude (and yes, they’d add that that of course meant I’d “beat” cancer). I think it boils down to this–if you smile and say positive things like “I’m hanging in there; I love my new red wig and my doctors are great!” (even if you are totally faking it) people will say “she’s doing great” because, well, you sound like you are doing great. If you say “well, I’m bald, I can’t sleep, my arm is swollen, I’m nauseous and I’m really worried this thing is gonna kill me” people are going to say, “she’s really not handling this well. I’m worried about her.” But the thing is, nothing we say or other people say is going to change our outcomes. Except that we might enjoy ourselves more and folks will avoid us less if we at least fake some positivity! 😉

    Also, I think people say stuff like “he’s got such a great attitude” because, well…what else are they going to say that’s complimentary? Goodness knows we don’t look all that good when going through cancer treatments! so we get the “champion” “fighter” “tough one” “great attitude” sort of platitudes.

    1. Teresa, You, grumpy?? Ha. You touched on something important here, Teresa. We so often fake our positive attitude to spare the feelings of others. I think that’s OK, just not all the time. Also, you’re right, words and attitudes don’t change outcomes. Timely diagnosis, successful treatment, science (RESEARCH) and lots of luck do.

    2. Teresa, I can so completely feel exactly what you are saying….I have been struggling a bit with the whole “positive” thing lately. I am pretty upbeat about the whole thing (diagnosed last year at 38 with stage IV, incurable, inoperable cholangiocarcinoma) and I have been so super positive about everything so far…
      You have made such a great point about how others gage how you are doing based on your current “attitude”. I almost feel like I cant share my “bad” days or feel bad because that would mean I am letting the cancer defeat me…
      And Nancy, thank you for your blog, I absolutely love it. It is nice to not always hear the “positive” touchy feel good stuff.

  7. I can so relate to this Nancy – in fact in my earlier eggshells rant, I think I mentioned the fact that I had also been rattled by the same direct link drawn between “cure” and attitude. For me, a positive attitude is something which has helped me cope with the heavy stuff that cancer, its emotional impact as well as physical, has thrown at me. It has contributed to me making some lifestyle changes to reduce my risk of recurrence. But I know that is as far as it goes.

    I think the points above about positive attitude making it easier for those around us are very well made, and definitely food for thought.

    1. Philippa, Thanks for taking time to comment. Yes, I remember the “eggshells rant” well. Attitudes certainly have an affect, I don’t wish to downplay that. I just don’t believe they determine outcomes. ( meaning life or death).

  8. Well said Nancy. Cancer is like marriage …. nobody on the outside knows what is happening on the inside. Michael may be putting on a bright sunny exterior but could be upset; angry; tired; frightened (all of them!)behind closed doors … and those of us which have been there would empathise with that.

    As you said, positive attitude probably helps, but is it the knowledge and skills of our health professionals, and the resources made available, which will hopefully enable us to return to full health … not “how brave we are”.

    BW ~ P

    1. Paula, Thank you for your input on this. You said it well. Positive attitude helps, but it’s knowledge, science and resources which enable us to live.

  9. Excellent posting, Nancy! It’s strange how our culture reveres celebrities so much, that we deceive ourselves into thinking they can fight cancer bravely and successfully.

    I also get incensed when people say that attitude is basically the deciding factor in a person’s recovery or ultimate demise. I’ve known quite a number of women who died from breast cancer, and they had a great attitude.

    I’m alive today because of treatments and/or sheer luck. Not because of my attitude.

    Besides, cancer patients have a right to have a negative attitude at times. After all, it is CANCER. That gives us the right to be less than stellar sometimes.

    1. Beth, Yes, our obsession with celebrities is kind of crazy. Actually, all of your statements are right on! Thank you for expressing yourself so well.

  10. Not cynical at all Nancy. You are absolutely right – the pressure to have a positive attitude at all times is unrealistic, and unfair on cancer patients. Yes, like you I try and ‘be positive’ but I know that it’s the surgeries and treatments that will or won’t work against the cancer – not my attitude. And, as you say, a massive dose of plain luck.

    1. I agree I try to keep a positive attitude but with years of ongoing side effects that are painful and depressing it’s hard. Usually at least once a day I have a cry to get that frustration and anger out and try to keep a positive attitude. Fake it till you make it another breast cancer survivor told me when I was diagosed.

      1. Sherry, Oh my, I’m so sorry you have such miserable ongoing side effects to contend with. It is hard and staying positive all the time isn’t realistic. I don’t think it’s healthy either. Don’t feel bad for not staying positive. Be true to your genuine feelings. Tears can be really helpful and cleansing, but I hope you also have someone you can be truly honest with. I’m not much of a believer in the “fake it” mantra. Thanks for sharing. Your true feelings are always welcome here, Sherry. My best.

  11. It is so true Nancy that society instinctively idealizes the “brave cancer fighter”, and the pressure is on us to display optimism in the face of cancer because it is reassures the people around us. Society expects stoicism in the face of cancer, grief in the face of death, and celebration only in the face of complete victory against cancer; it creates unfair expectations for people fighting cancer and deprives them of an outlet for their darker fears by deeming them inappropriate, weak, and possibly even a barrier to their survival.

    1. Marie, Thank you for your wise insights on this subject. I think you’re right. This “brave cancer fighter” persona is often displayed to reassure the people around us. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it can, as you said, create unfair expectations and fuel feelings of depression and guilt.

  12. Good post. Probably the worst thing I heard was something I didn’t hear at all. Not directly anyway. A person told my children, “Well, if your mother has the faith she thinks she does, she’ll beat cancer.”

    As if a good Christian NEVER dies of cancer.

    It made me mad. Which feeds into that whole ‘bad attitude’ thing.

    1. Debby, Wow, that was a pretty insensitive comment. It’s probably a good thing you did not hear that directly! Thanks for sharing.

  13. Fantastic post! I’m perplexed too by the bravery attached to all cancer patients. I guess people on the outside of a diagnosis don’t realize that it may not be bravery at all but simply the desire to get through it and put it behind us. Curling up in the fetal position doesn’t stop the errant cells from mutating!

    1. Pinkunderbelly, Thanks for reading and taking time to comment. Yes, perplexed is a good word choice to use here; we just do what we must do. If only curling up would work!

  14. Yes! With the experience, of living with the Cancer, that my Beloved Mother, struggled with until her passing. It was possible to be positive and have a “great” attitude, but after the long-term extreme effects of chemotherapy, one is just trying to get through the day, managing only the basics. You reach a point, when you are thinking, which is worst – the effects of the Cancer, or the side effects of the disease, AND you start wondering which is more damaging – the Cancer or the Treatment??

    1. Bianca, Thanks for commenting and I’m sorry for your loss. It sounds like your mother’s treatments were quite difficult. You’re right it does sometimes make one wonder about which is worse.

  15. You just posted one of my huge pet peeves with what people say. Sigh.

    How do you explain this to well meaning people? I’ve had lots of people say this to me, and it just makes me cringe.

    well written.

    By the way, I’ve added you to my blog roll – thanks for coming by yesterday 🙂

    1. Michelle, Thanks for reading and taking time to comment as well. Guess I now know another fellow “cringer!” ha. Hope you are feeling alright these days. Thanks for adding me to your list.

  16. Nancy,
    Spot on! Those positive attitude comments get under my skin, but then I realize people may not know what else to say. Let’s not forget that surviving cancer also is rooted in what kind and how far advanced your cancer is. Just the process of surviving life is difficult which reminds me of another comment that’s beginning to get under my skin. “God has saved you for a reason,” as though it were a toss up as to which of us would survive… Don’t get me started.


    1. Brenda, I’m so happy to have you stop by my blog. Whenever I see that you’ve been by, I am hoping it means you are having an “alright” day. I bet you have heard all kinds of “forgettable” comments since James died. You can probably write another book about them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  17. Nancy, I hear this complaint over and over again from cancer patients about having a positive attitude. Dr. Jerri Nielsen Fitzgerald made that same observation in her book “Ice Bound,” when her close colleagues isolated at the South Pole told her to adopt a positive attitude. Some days she just couldn’t, especially in her circumstances, and it annoyed her even more that her friends would deny her the opportunity to grieve in their presence. I agree with other commentators that often people say this because they don’t know what else to say. The more we get the word out into the community that it is not helpful (and tell them what is), maybe people (including reporters and journalists who should know better) will get the message and let us have our tantrums if we wish.

    Take good care,

    1. Jan, Thank you for sharing an interesting viewpoint on this. “Ice Bound” sounds like a good book to read, I’ll add it to my list. And yes, I agree, people often don’t know what else to say.

  18. excellent post, I completely agree, people keep telling me I have beaten cancer because of my positive attitude. so if it comes back, will that be because I wasn’t positive enough?????

    1. Gabby, Thanks so much for commenting on this. Your question is exactly my problem with this whole attitude thing, all those hidden implications…

  19. Terrific post. Debby, I got that comment too, but related to divorce. Good Christians DON’T divorce, they have 50 year Anniversaries! (I was the only divorced person there.) At a Bible Study no less! Another zinger is, “because you are such a good Christian you (Fill in the blank) because God never gives you more than you can bear! I got that one when my precious nephew was killed! Face it, there is no end to stupid comments, as long as people contiue to speak!!!

    1. Betty, Thanks for sharing your thoughts so honestly. You are absolutely right, “there is no end to stupid comments as long as people continue to speak!” Love that! Although, I do think sometimes it’s worse for people to keep quiet. Think before you speak is still great advice. I have always hated that comment, God never gives you more than you can bear. So, there is no limit to what we should be ‘capable’ of handling? hmm. We all have limits in my view. We just muddle through the best way we can.

  20. Nancy,

    Thanks so much for sharing the link to this post on my facebook page. Such important sentiments you are sharing here. As someone trying to help women cope with the physical appearance changes that come with cancer and cancer treatments, I am always trying to counter the prevailing messages that surviving is the only thing that matters and caring about any of the non-survival side effects of cancer, like hair loss, breast loss, weight gain/loss, etc, is vain at best. Such messages invalidate very real emotions and doing such is no prescription for positive optimism…more like repressed pain and grief.

    At the same time, I do my best to encourage other women to do whatever they feel they need to do to feel more positive about themselves because at some point, depression, fear, anxiety, anger and the like can be obstacles to taking actions where we can to nurture and care for ourselves, be it through diet, exercise, socializing, spiritual growth and release, etc, etc…

    What’s needed is a more balanced message. Yes, loving ourselves and doing the absolute best we can to care for ourselves is important. Being happy about this “life-changing opportunity” that cancer is often chalked up to is just wrong. I can think of a zillion better ways to give my life more meaning and resent the endless streams of cancer role models telling us that cancer was essentially the best thing that’s happened to them. If that’s positive attitude, they can have it all to themselves.

    Thanks again for the great post!
    Susan Beausang, 4Women.com

  21. I know this is an older blog, but this is one of my pet peeves so I felt the need to comment.
    Whether I survive cancer or not does not depend on my attitude. Sorry, to all the pink “I will survive” folks out there, but I just do not have that kind of power. Nancy, you are right, it makes it seem like those who don’t survive didn’t try hard enough, were not positive enough.
    My other related pet peeve is the Christian version of this, which is if you pray hard enough or have faith enough you will always be healed. Again, that is putting the responsibility on the person with cancer. I believe God can heal and does, that he uses both miracles and modern medicine, but if He always healed everybody, no one would ever die. I truly believe God worked in how my cancer was discovered, in getting the particular doctors that I have, in the effectiveness of treatments so far. But, is it to give me a short time more or many years? I’m stage 4 IBC, being here at all is a miracle.
    A positive attitude can make life a lot more enjoyable for ourselves and those around. Maybe it can even give our immune system a little boost. But, I have known some very grumpy people who seemed to defy all medical odds while some very sweet cheerful ones seemed to go far too early.
    I’ll take each day as a gift. I did not earn it by my attitude or will power. It’s just a gift.

  22. Nancy I have been searching for a blog like yours which is realistic and not self loathing. I am 6 weeks post bilateral mastectomy with expander reconstruction. Two chemos down and my hair fell out last week. I am told by my friends and family that I am strong and have such a great attitude. And I do. But that it not going to cure my cancer or anyone else’s. However it does allow you to cope and face each day. This cancer has changed my life and will be part of me from this day forward. I find myself being very cynical about many things, but I know if I take each day one at a time, regardless of the outcome I can some how find joy in the little things.
    Thanks for your inspiration.


    1. Jane, Gosh, thank you for the wonderful comment. I’m really glad you found my blog too and that you find the content helpful and validating. Cancer certainly changes a person’s life. I am probably more cynical than I once was too! And that’s okay! Glad to “meet” you. Hope to hear from you again. Good luck with the rest of chemo and all the rest too…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *