Saying ‘stay positive’ can do more harm than good

Stay Positive. Those two little words have more meaning than I would ever have anticipated. The comments started before I was ready, honestly. Part of that was my own fault for being transparent with my diagnosis early on and part of it was simply how our society generally responds to negative situations. Always find the silver lining. Always think positively and positive outcomes will follow.

Well, I’m here to tell you that isn’t always the case. A positive attitude simply is not the make or break it with cancer, or any illness really. As much as we may wish that were true. There are plenty of things a positive attitude is great for, primarily relating to your emotional and mental health. However, it is not a necessity and anyone struggling with an illness does not need to have a positive attitude throughout the entire struggle. It’s not always that easy, anyway.

From early on, I felt pretty confident that my experience with cancer would all be temporary. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel – in about 10 months – and that helped tremendously. Most of that was naiveté because I thought my life would return to normal after treatment ended but either way, it helped me to be in good spirits in the beginning. I even said things like, “if anyone had to get cancer, I’m glad it’s me because I have great doctors and a great support system.” I felt like I could take on the world. I also had a friend who initially responded to me with “why aren’t you angry about all this?!” My answer was simple: because it wouldn’t change anything.

When the reality set in of living my life according to my medical appointment schedule and how I physically felt from the treatments, it started to feel a bit more daunting. 10 months started to feel longer and longer. Add in what felt like watching the world go by without me and we have a recipe for not feeling entirely positive. Going from being a young adult running full speed ahead with travel and career, to having to stop everything and simply focus on surviving, was difficult for me.

However, these thoughts kicked in around the same time that the comments did. Every time I had a negative thought or felt myself going down the rabbit hole, I heard those comments. Stay positive! Those words put the onus on me to ignore the reality of my situation and just simply stay positive, or turn everything into a positive by always finding a silver lining. So, that’s exactly what I did.

I assured everyone around me that I was doing really well. I got a part-time job during treatment, I was active with kayaking and camping and going out with friends, and I rarely complained. I focused on my new relationship and I pushed myself to act as normal as I possibly could. I wasn’t just a cancer patient and I could still do most of what other people could do. I tried to make light of everything so that everyone around me felt okay about it all. Seeing me be positive and thriving made everyone else around me feel better. I made myself responsible for living up to the ‘stay positive’ pressure that nearly everyone around me exerted and I also made myself responsible for the emotions of my loved ones.

Now, let me be clear, this is not all because of people telling me to stay positive. When I first told people I had cancer, I assured them that I didn’t know how to be a cancer patient as much as they didn’t know how to treat me as one. So not to worry, we’ll all figure it out. That was true. I hold no hard feelings toward anyone who “said the wrong thing” or told me to stay positive or anything of the sort. Everyone had the best intentions and I always sincerely appreciated it.

What I’m getting at is, there are a combination of things at play here. I did not know how to be a cancer patient or navigate the mental and emotional aspects of it. I tricked myself into being okay because of societal pressure. I could only handle so much at the time, and feeling like a failure if I fell into negativity wasn’t something I wanted to do. I wanted to succeed in that so I tricked myself. 

Most people around me, including my doctors, would say how I handled everything so well. My doctors even said I was their ideal patient with how active I was being. These positive affirmations kept me going. I felt like I was actively doing something to help the situation, whether it be for me or others, I’m not sure. It felt like the one thing I had control over. 

I succeeded so well with staying positive and trying to live life as normally as possible that my husband, to this day, thinks cancer was not a large part of our relationship while I was in treatment. This will forever blow my mind. Of course, it’s a huge part of our relationship now during survivorship and marriage but he felt like at the time, it didn’t play a big role. He felt like he was my escape from cancer, which he certainly was to some extent, but our relationship and cancer were completely intertwined for me.

I kept so much inside of me during this experience, which is completely unlike me, because I wanted to control everything around me that I could. I knew I couldn’t control cancer or the outcome of my treatments, but I could try to control everything else and I did so exceptionally well. Like I said, I even tricked myself as I played this role. Most of this I only recognized after the fact and I was not aware of what I was doing at the time.

It all came falling down though after treatment. I held onto positivity for those 10 months and then depression set in and I struggled with every aspect of survivorship. I did not truly process what was happening during treatment. I was 100% in survival mode, which I had not realized at all. I would not recommend that for anyone, because when the shoe drops, it drops HARD. I’ll get into the juicy details later on and what I’d recommend for others to prevent some of what I had to deal with but in the meantime, I’ll share some alternatives to saying ‘stay positive’.

  1. I’d like to help you during this time by bringing you a home-cooked meal, sitting with you during chemo, checking in on your regularly, driving you to a doctor’s appointment or helping with anything else you may need during this time. ***Choose something and tell them you’d like to do that for them. Do not only ask what they need, because they’ll likely say nothing or that they don’t know.
  2. It’s okay to not be okay. I’m here for you, whether you’re feeling positive, sad, angry, defeated, lonely or any other emotion. You can feel whatever you’re feeling while you’re around me.
  3. Send letters, flowers, or anything small and thoughtful to randomly brighten up their day and help them to stay positive, rather than simply telling them to.

Please know, saying something like stay positive, with good intention, is often very much appreciated over saying nothing at all. I’ve shared some helpful alternatives but don’t worry too much and just try to support your loved ones the best you can. It’s an impossible situation and everyone is just trying their best to get through it.

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