Being positive: Is it a benefit or a burden?

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Being diagnosed with cancer is a traumatic event. Indeed, some estimates say that 1 in 4 women diagnosed with breast cancer suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of their diagnosis. The number may be even higher for diagnoses with other types of cancer. Despite the acknowledged trauma of a diagnosis, most if not all cancer survivor will have been told, at some point or other, to “stay positive”! Such advice is certainly well-intentioned. There is a strong and enduring belief that maintaining a positive outlook actually improves patient outcomes. However, the scientific evidence is now very clear; attitude and personality traits do not significantly impact recurrence or survival rates.

As a patient, there is no right or wrong way to approach cancer. Every patient will respond differently and their responses will reflect their circumstances and the support offered by friends,
family, colleagues and health professionals.

These results do not exclude alternative benefits of positive attitudes. Some evidence shows that a positive attitude (defined in many different ways) can improve aspects of quality of life for cancer patients. And genuine positive emotions may trigger upward spirals and improved coping capacities. It is the pressure to be ceaselessly positive (the so-called “tyranny of positivity”) that can be so potentially burdensome. Many cancer patients feel obliged to present an unrealistically upbeat façade and feel judged to have failed if they are unable to sustain such an illusion. The alternative to relentless positivity is not abject negativity, it is realism. Realism arguably equips a cancer patient most effectively for the challenges of diagnosis, treatment and beyond. But even pragmatic realism may be viewed as uncomfortably negative and somehow failing to achieve the expected level of heroic positivity.

It is the pressure to be ceaselessly positive (the so-called “tyranny of positivity”) that can be so potentially burdensome.

As a patient, there is no right or wrong way to approach cancer. Every patient will respond differently and their responses will reflect their circumstances and the support offered by friends, family, colleagues and health professionals. Cancer patients should feel able to express their full range of emotions and be supported regardless of their state of positive, negative or realistic disposition.

For those who feel ready, AICR says that cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention. These evidence-based recommendations offer simple and effective advice to help cancer patients take control of modifiable aspects of their health. Research suggests that a positive outlook may increase the adoption of such measures. However, our recommendations should not be viewed as another hurdle or a challenge but as an opportunity for a healthier future.

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