I love this piece in the New York Times about the myth that a fighting spirit and good attitude make all the difference in how (and if) you recover from a life-threatening condition. I wrote a piece in 2009 about this and am reposting here since the topic has received attention this week.
“Having a good attitude makes all the difference.”
People say that to me all the time. I am sure every person who’s had cancer hears that. I think what people are saying is that there is something you can control in all of this mess. There is so much you can’t control, that you have no choice in. People say how you deal with it, how you choose to behave once these things are thrown your way, is up to you.
Here’s what I think:
I think what matters is good health insurance. I think what matters are friends and social support to get you through. I think what matters are children, or pets, or others who nurture your soul and remind you why you are going through all of this: there are others who care about and depend on you.
I think good medicines matter. I think caring and capable oncologists matter. I think talented surgeons matter. I think getting good advice matters.
Why am I resistant to the idea that attitude matters? Not because I don’t believe it. I reject this idea because it places the burden of healing on the individual patient. It places the weight of getting better in his/her hands. I think cancer patients have enough to deal with. We have enough to feel guilty about and responsible for. I think tossing our collective attitude into the mix is a lot of pressure. All eyes are on us anyway.
Now we have to watch how we treat the thing which is killing us.
Having a good attitude says:
the power is in you to survive.
The power is in you to heal.
The power is in you to do well.
But looking at the converse is troubling. The implication is that if you suffer, if you relapse, if you die– it is your fault.
If you had only had the right attitude,
you could have been better at keeping it away.
You could have been stronger.
You could have beaten it.
That may be flawed logic in the philosophical sense but I think it’s worth exploring. Even if that logic can’t be reversed so easily, I think the implication is there: you should have the right attitude because it makes a difference. Difference in what? Difference in your outcome. If it didn’t, then they would not say it.
Or would they?
There is an impetus to control, as I’ve talked about frequently in my writing. You just feel like you need to do something. I think that’s what people are grasping on to with their advice. They know you can’t do much, so they tell you to control the one thing you can: your mindset about what is happening to you.
Sometimes I just don’t want to have a good attitude.
I don’t necessarily think it makes a difference.
I don’t want to think positive thoughts all day
and see the good in what is happening to me.
I think that can be healthy too.