Positive Shmositive

You might have noticed by now that I am, on some basic level, greatly offended anytime I get the impression that someone is trying to tell me how I should be feeling.  I don’t know when this mindset became mine.  Even now it seems I’m always battling the, “But this is how I’m supposed to feel,” issues in my life (hello–Postpartum Depression anyone?), but I know that during and after my Mom’s fight with Lung Cancer, I struggled with it all a lot. 

Someone posted this transcript on the Lung Cancer board that I still participate on:  Positive Thinking Does Not Help Fight Cancer.  Now, we have some incredibly positive people over there.  At LCSC Hope almost always gets the last word.  Immediately the question was raised, “What’s this study matter?  I don’t have anything to LOSE by being positive.  I can only gain that way.”  I see this line of thinking, and I agree!  I really do!  But I guess I say, “This news isn’t for you then.  Obviously you’ve got the positive attitude.” 

This study IS good news for those who don’t always land in a ‘positive thinking frame of mind’ naturally.  This message to always be positive brings with it an unspoken message:  If your treatment fails, if the cancer gets the upper hand, you didn’t fight hard enough.  You weren’t positive enough.  You weren’t as great as a warrior if your battle against cancer lasted only 3 months, as the guy whose went on to live another 30 years.  It’s another game of ‘blame the patient.’

This article in the New York Times very eloquently gets that point accross.

One reason this all hits so close to home for me (aside from my own personal struggles with ‘how I should be feeling’ messages), is the emotions I was left to deal with after my Mom’s very short battle with Lung Cancer.

When my Mom was diagnosed I told her, “Mama…  You are meaner than this cancer.  You can beat this.”  I didn’t understand it then, but she looked at me a little bit bewildered and said, “Everybody keeps saying that.  I don’t understand that.  I don’t FEEL courageous.  I don’t FEEL brave.”  Early in her journey I can remember wanting to ‘infuse her with hope’ and ‘help her to see how many things she had to live for.’  What I failed to see, what I failed to have compassion toward Mom in during those moments, was where she was at.  She was scared shitless.  She was in pain.  Her body was being taken over by a monster that she couldn’t control no matter how much gumption she had or how many positive thinking mantras she repeated to herself. 

After she died only 8 months after diagnosis, the battle terminology always got to me.  I would hear someone congratulate a long term survivor by saying, “You’re such a warrior!”  And I would think–My Mama was a FIGHTER.  Did she not fight hard enough?  Was she NOT a warrior? 

And then it dawned on me.  The men who died in the first minutes of Normandy weren’t any less warriors than those who fought that day and went on to survive til the end of World War II.  They were simply in a battle so big, and so brutal that it was inevitable that it would end in tragedy for some. 

My mother was no less a warrior than the person who beats cancer for 2 years or 4 or 20.  She was just hit with a demon of a disease that moved too quickly and too fiercely for any amount of positive thinking to sway.

So I guess the bottom line is, whenever you encounter a person with cancer, be careful with your language.  It’s true, there is NOTHING to lose with positive thinking, as long as it’s not forced stoicism.  In a battle as all consuming as cancer, a person needs permission to simply be where they are.

And in the larger sense, we all need that.  We’re all fighting our own battles day in and day out.  Some are huge, some aren’t so big.  But we’re not always going to be able to paste on a smile and trudge through the sewage with smiles on our faces.  Sometimes, we’re going to need to crumple up and cry.  We ALL need permission to simply be where we are.  To feel what we feel.  And to know that our problems are not always a direct result of our lack of positivity in a given moment. 

We are where we are, and sometimes that’s where we need to be.


7 thoughts on “Positive Shmositive

  1. “And then it dawned on me. The men who died in the first minutes of Normandy weren’t any less warriors than those who fought that day and went on to survive til the end of World War II.”

    I think that is an inspired conclusion, Val. When my dearest aunt, who was almost like a mom, was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, I was in complete denial that she would die even until the very day she did die. It took me years to face the things you name here. Truth be told, I’m still coming to grips with some of it. I think it takes us a life-time to figure out our own stories and how they intersect with those of the ones we love.

    ……And then, by extension, we are all of us warriors.

  2. Wow. Great post.

    You’re right, Val. My father died last September after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer in April. It does seem funny, trying to figure out how to be and what to say. My dad at first acted like it was nothing, that he was resigned to it because, as he said, “We’re all gonna die someday.” It was later that he acted scared. He was only 59 years old. And he was a fighter too.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being positive, when you can be. But there is something to be said for feeling what needs to be felt. Being positive doesn’t mean that you deny your negative feelings. When you have those feelings, you should be still with them. Let them be. Wallow if you have to. The more you fight to try to change the negative in to the positive, the longer the negativity will stick around. What you resist, persists.

    If you’re feeling a feeling, FEEL IT COMPLETELY! That is the only way it will pass.

    And being positive may or may not cure cancer or anything for that matter. The difference is that maybe you can feel a bit more peace as your body is disintegrating into the nothingness from which it came. My dad fought it all the way out and it was difficult to see. I often wonder… if he really did resign himself to the “we all die anyway” statement, them maybe his transition wouldn’t have been so difficult for him. Then maybe he wouldn’t have had just anger and regret.

    I know he was scared. It was good for me to see because it allowed me to show him that I, too, was frightened. And that was the first time that we actually shared, without masks of pride, how we felt since I was a little girl. It was a blessing to me.

    I’m happy he’s at peace now.

    Sorry for the long comment. You really touched me with your post.

  3. Oh, how I understand! I would say things like that to my mom. Just yesterday I thought about what I’d said to her. She, too, must have been scared. My positive thinking mantras must not have helped at all. I still wish I would have had more truthful discussions with her about how she felt.I think I didn’t want to talk about it because it would make it more real. Yesterday I went back to a town we used to live in. It was the last place we lived as a family of four. Everything was normal then, even trivial. The calm before the storm, you know? I saw her in her nurse’s uniform, the one she was so proud to wear after going back to school. I justsobbed and sobbed yesterday. And like you, I told myself that I shouldn’t be feeling this way. I was doing so well. I DON’T like to allow myself to feel the pain. To ever feel like I did in the beginning. I think that we will always be motherless daughters and will always feel it.
    After my mom died, people would tell me how strong I was. I did not feel strong. I felt God gave me my son when he did, because if I didn’t have him, I would never have even gotten out of bed in the morning. Seriously.
    When will we get over the deaths of our mothers? Never, and that is a testimony to what special women they were. I still want my mom every day, but there are still some days when all I want is ‘my mommy’, you know.

  4. Very, very well stated. I haven’t had someone close to me battle cancer, but I war against depression. Believing that this enemy is due to a lack of fighting, or lack of faith, only makes it worse. I agree, we have to be allowed to be where we are. We can’t move on from where we are until we know and accept exactly where that is.

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