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“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 chemobrain.

What I do vividly remember is who and what they were discussing. It was Michael Douglas and his 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.

Perhaps 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. Or perhaps it’s more about the comfort of the folks saying those things.

Sometimes, a cancer patient does not have a good attitude. Sometimes, she/he feels 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. 

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 inferred, 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?

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Having An Attitude about Attitude #cancer

 Michael Douglas 

"Having an Attitude" About Attitude #breastcancer #cancer #mentalhealth #advocacy

Honesty | Fitness for Survivors

Wednesday 12th of March 2014

[…] think and write about this. A couple of recent posts on the subject come from my friend Nancy, from Nancy’s Point; and Beth, from Calling the Shots. Beth writes about the possible perils of relying on attitude. […]

Jane Howard

Monday 26th of August 2013

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.



Monday 26th of August 2013

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...


Friday 19th of July 2013

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.


Monday 22nd of July 2013

Elizabeth, It sounds like you and I are on the same page on this one too! Well said! Thank you.

White Fire on Black Fire | regrounding

Wednesday 30th of May 2012

[...] lately; articles by AnneMarie and Marie are just a few examples, as well as an older one by Nancy. In my response to Marie’s post, I mention that attitude matters as [...]


Tuesday 31st of January 2012

Yes. I agree with you. 100% A positive attitude isn't a bad thing and can be helpful, but it certainly won't cure you or heal you.


Tuesday 31st of January 2012

Brandie, So true. So true! Thanks for taking time to check out my post. Loved yours.

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