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Is Happiness Oversold to Cancer Patients?

By HERWriter
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Barbara Ehrenreich, self-proclaimed feminist and proponent of women’s health, just released a surprising new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. I caught her interview on TV and was taken aback by the negativity of her comments . . . which I guess is the point.

When Ehrenreich had breast cancer a few years ago, it seemed to her that everyone expected her to smile through her pain, to “look on the bright side” of things, virtually pushing the happy pill down her throat in spite of her anguish. The book, she said, came out of her reaction to the unrealistic expectation that she positive-think herself out of the horror of her situation. Having cancer was horrible, she argues, and she refuses to be guilted into feeling that she was letting everyone else down in the process.

Certainly, anyone with cancer has the right to feel any way she chooses to about her situation. It is, after all, her personal experience. Without question, everyone who gets cancer wishes they didn’t have it - the treatments are hard, the disease is frightening, and half a million Americans die every year from it. So, why put on a happy face?

Quite frankly, it comes down to how you WANT to feel. Personally, I’ve found that being angry achieves nothing. Although I agree with Ms. Ehrenreich’s criticism of the idealistic fad to visualize great fortune, visualization is a very effective tool for patients in medical crisis. And, while she argues that there is no evidence that happiness increases the immune system, it has been proved again and again that one’s attitude makes a difference in the outcome of cancer patients. (Ref: The Anatomy of Hope by Jerome Groopman, M.D.)

My favorite mantra is “You may not be able to choose the circumstances but you can choose how to have the experience.” Every day, I choose to embrace the life I have been given and try to live it as best I can. I refuse to let cancer become the lens through which I experience the world around me. I choose to be happy in spite of my physical issues, not because of them.

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HERWriter Guide

Hi Diane and Annette - I'm glad we're having this dialogue, as I think it's really important. The "Secret" movement Annette referred to has indeed caused a lot of misunderstandings as well as needless and unfair guilt for many people, including a lot of healthy people dealing with difficult circumstances like job loss.

One point I wanted to make is I think it's important to recognize when you're around influences that can be harmful to your recovery, and to choose to stay away from them. I applaud Annette for recognizing that she was disturbed by what she read and speaking out about it. In my own case I was very disturbed by the negative environment in the initial oncology practice that treated me, and even though it was disruptive I found another practice with a stronger focus on healing and wellness. It's made an incredible difference to now have a team that's working for my best interests and has a positive attitude.

Survival is tough enough to begin with, and I definitely appreciate the opportunity to have these discussions and explore ways we can help each other succeed.
Thank you both,

November 23, 2009 - 5:56pm

Hi, Diane. On this one, I agree with everything you and Pat shared with us. In retrospect, I believe Ehrenreich's intention was to call a time out on the notion that you can totally change your life circumstances by changing your attitude. There has been a movement, catapulted by The Secret, to put all your trust in your ability to manifest your own life situation. It lays the responsibility totally (and unfairly) on the individual; i.e. if you die of a disease, you obviously didn't do it right. That is a dangerous and distructive notion to give people with catastrophic illness. Like Pat, I had been interested in Ehrenreich's work and tuned in to hear her share insights on survival, only to be disappointed at her slant on the subject. But she is authentic, straight-talking, and very opinionated about her beliefs. And, it was she who started this very stimulating discussion.

November 23, 2009 - 9:33am

Annette and Pat,

This is such a fascinating topic. I am not familiar with Ehrenreich's work, though this makes me want to seek it out and read some of it. I am always interested in the people who look between the cracks of society and investigate the contrarian views. Even when I disagree, I always learn something.

Annette, I wonder if the key is exactly what you said: You choose to live your life in this way. Perhaps Ehrenreich didn't feel that the choice was hers; that there were too many platitudes pushed at her in a time when she was really struggling. I know that when I suffered through a pretty major depression, platitudes did nothing for me. Positive thinking didn't even help me get out and walk the dog. And yet depression is still seen as something you can just "get over." The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality is still present with depression; I am sure it is even magnified with cancer.

I am in awe at people who are fighting any life-threatening disease who actually CAN take each day at a time. I think they (you) are heroes for learning to do it and then teaching others how. If I were to get cancer, I don't know that I would find that same ability in myself.

And in thinking about it, I would find comfort in both views. I would want to define my own life and live it in a joyful way; but when I was down, I would take comfort in someone who says to me, simply, "yes, this really sucks, doesn't it?"

November 23, 2009 - 8:36am
HERWriter Guide

Hi Annette- While I haven't read the book you mentioned, I have read Barbara Ehrenreich's work for many years in the New York Times, and have several of her books on economics and employment. She's someone who often tackles topics that others won't talk about, and I think that's what she's done here.

The image of cancer as portrayed by Hollywood usually bears little resemblance to real life. There's also a strong societal reluctance to have honest discussions of both the ups and downs of living with cancer, something I've personally seen harm both caregivers and patients. While I believe strongly in approaching cancer with a positive attitude and would not advocate a negative approach to the disease, I do get really tired of the "happy pill" attitude and the harm it causes. The transition process a person with cancer goes through - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - are well documented, are natural and are normal. I've found that supporting those going through this process, and enabling them to express their emotions and feelings honestly and openly, is of far greater help than demanding they demonstrate a false demeanor to please others and meet societal expectations.
We all process things differently, and there's got to be some kind of middle ground that would be in the best interests of those of us who are living with cancer. Thanks so much for bringing up this thought-provoking topic.
Take good care,

November 19, 2009 - 6:17pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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