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Positive Attitude- How Important Is It Really

Positive Attitude- How Important Is It Really?

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, many people find themselves bombarded with well-intentioned family and friends offering advice. This advice takes many forms-books on nutrition, articles about new treatments, and very often the suggestion to “just stay positive”.

So just how important is a positive attitude when facing cancer? Unfortunately, there is no good scientific evidence that ‘positive thinking’ increases survival. If there was, it would probably be a lot easier to muster the strength to view a cancer experience with solely a “glass half full” mentality.

The Stress of Positive Thinking

Someone who naturally has a positive outlook on life will often be able to continue to seek out and find the positive in a cancer experience. For others who tend to view the world through a more pessimistic lens, asking them to find the positive in a cancer experience can be an impossibility and can lead to even more distress. Unrelenting pressure to be positive is draining and counter-productive, and can lead to a person just “putting on a happy face” because that’s what is expected of them. Jimmie Holland, MD, former chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, call this “the tyranny of the positive attitude” in her book The Human Side of Cancer. Holland writes, “For most patients, cancer is the most difficult and frightening experience they have ever encountered. All this hype claiming that if you don’t have a positive attitude and that if you get depressed you are making your tumor grow faster invalidates people’s natural and understandable reactions to a threat to their lives. That’s what I mean by the tyranny of positive thinking.”1

Finding the Support You Need

Most people have a wide range of emotions in response to serious illnesses. This is normal and this is healthy.  It’s important to remember that when others urge you to “be positive” this may be because it is easier for them to see you upbeat, rather than in distress (i.e. it’s not about you, it’s about them). If you are feeling down or in distress, find someone to talk to, rather than just pretending to be upbeat to make those around you more comfortable. If the people closest to you are not able to hear your worries and fears, talk to a friend, a clergy person, a social worker in your cancer center or a local therapist. Talking about fears does not create them where they didn’t exist before, but talking about worries and fears can help to relieve them. This, for most people, is a lot more helpful than just putting on a happy face because that is what is expected.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Holland J. The Human Side of Cancer. Harper-Collins. 2000.


  • Jeffrey Poehlmann moderator
    2 years ago

    You make an excellent point about people who need the patient to “act positive” usually wanting this because it alleviates their own stress or fear or inability to process something over which they are powerless. As a patient, I have encountered many instances where, presenting an issue that was difficult for me in my cancer treatment, it was clear that the other person was making the experience all about his or herself rather than dealing directly with my own situation. I’ve come to accept this (even expect it) as part of human nature, but it certainly has required a bit of mental work on my part. Of course, if there was more awareness about lung cancer and less stigma fogging the situation, I think this would become an easier situation for all parties.

  • Raven101
    2 years ago

    When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer, along with Stage 4 colon cancer, some of my fellow church members actually blamed either me or my parents for the Lung Cancer. My mother died of bone cancer in 1981. I quit smoking in 1979.

    Others were amazed at my positive attitude. They thought that positive thinking, along with their own idea of alternative treatment, would cure my cancer better than standard treatment.

    Most people in the general public have no idea what it is like to have cancer. They seem to think it is either not a big deal, or a death sentence. Both views are wrong.

    My own positive attitude comes from my faith in God, knowing that He warned me through non cancer symptoms that defy medical explanation. Knowing that He is looking out for me gave me my positive outlook.

    This, coupled with the great strides in cancer treatment over the years, mean my out look on my future is high.

  • Margot moderator
    2 years ago

    Thank you so much for sharing @Raven101, I’m sorry that some blamed you. It is great to hear of your positive attitude through it all. How are you feeling recently? Thinking of you.

    Margot, Team Member

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