The sugar-coat­ing of can­cer... re­quires the de­nial of un­der­stand­able feel­ings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried un­der a cos­metic layer of cheer

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - THIS NOR­MAL LIFE BRIAN BLUM

All I wanted was a “free pass” – the abil­ity to say “No, I don’t feel up to walk­ing the dog. Can you?” or the op­tion to tell a client, “I’m go­ing to need an ex­ten­sion on the dead­line be­cause, you know, can­cer.”

But, other than on days when I re­ally am so out of it I can’t hold a co­her­ent con­ver­sa­tion, I haven’t been able to play the can­cer card.

It’s not that I’ve been do­ing so well. Be­hind the “in­spir­ing” pic­tures I post to Face­book, smil­ing in my hospi­tal bed or out for a stroll in nature, there’s been some gen­uine mis­ery: fa­tigue, nau­sea, ver­tigo and var­i­ous aches and pains. (So far, a healthy dose of med­i­cal cannabis and ju­di­cious “el­bow bump­ing” seem to have kept me out of the ER.)

It was dur­ing one of those bad days that I be­came par­tic­u­larly dis­cour­aged.

“Maybe I could take a few months ‘sab­bat­i­cal’ from work,” I sug­gested to my wife, Jody. “I could watch TV all day, catch up on my shows.”

“That’s not the can­cer talk­ing,” said my ther­a­pist, when I laid out my pro­posal. “That sounds more like de­pres­sion. And you don’t want to go down that rab­bit hole.”

My ther­a­pist was re­fer­ring to my ten­dency to spi­ral in the face of bad news, to pile on the neg­a­tiv­ity un­til it be­comes an ob­ses­sion that isn’t good for any­one. “Check­ing out” could cause some se­ri­ous psy­choso­cial dam­age, she im­plied.

“But this time it’s dif­fer­ent,” I coun­tered, not ready to give in with­out putting up a fight for pas­siv­ity. “It’s not like in the past when my boss was on my case or I had a tiff with Jody. This time, I’m re­ally sick. I think a free pass could do me good, give me time to heal.”

But my ther­a­pist just shook her head. “You’ve built up all th­ese struc­tures that are a ma­jor part of your iden­tity,” she said. “As a hus­band, a father, an em­ployee, a dog walker, a friend, some­one who ex­er­cises and eats well and hikes the Hi­malayas. Take those away, and your self-image be­comes lim­ited to that of a ‘sick per­son.’ I don’t think that’s re­ally what you want.”

THAT AD­VICE is con­sis­tent with the pop­u­lar con­cept that main­tain­ing a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude can play a crit­i­cal role in al­le­vi­at­ing ill­ness. The idea took off big time in the 1980s with Louise Hay’s mas­sive best-seller You Can Heal Your Life, in which the au­thor doc­u­ments how, through pos­i­tive af­fir­ma­tions and vi­su­al­iza­tions, she cured her­self of can­cer.

Hay’s ap­proach res­onates be­yond re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. “For many years there have been those who were con­vinced that peo­ple with cer­tain per­son­al­ity types were more likely to get can­cer,” the Amer­i­can Can­cer So­ci­ety web­site re­calls. “The com­mon thought was that neu­rotic peo­ple and in­tro­verts were at the high­est risk of can­cer.”

That line of think­ing has been since de­bunked – sig­nif­i­cantly through a 30year study fol­low­ing 60,000 peo­ple pub­lished in 2010. But the be­lief in a mind­body-heal­ing con­nec­tion con­tin­ues.

Is it backed up by science, though? A study pub­lished last week in the jour­nal Nature Com­mu­ni­ca­tions con­ducted at the Tech­nion – Is­rael In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy sug­gests the an­swer may be yes. The re­searchers found that in­creas­ing the level of dopamine in the brains of tu­mor-bear­ing mice – thus boost­ing their pos­i­tive emo­tions – re­duced the size of their growths.

Whether or not the science holds up with hu­mans, it misses the point, im­plies Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich in her book Bright-Sided: How Pos­i­tive Think­ing is Un­der­min­ing Amer­ica.

When Ehren­re­ich was di­ag­nosed with can­cer her­self, she ran into an al­most un­re­lent­ing re­quire­ment to stay pos­i­tive.

“Can­cer was the best thing that ever hap­pened to me,” she quotes Lance Arm­strong as say­ing.

“Can­cer is your pass­port to the life you were truly meant to live,” quips Anne McNer­ney in the book The Gift of Can­cer.

“Can­cer had ev­ery­thing to do with how good the good parts of my life were,” writes NBC News cor­re­spon­dent Betty Rollin.

Ehren­re­ich dis­agrees.

“Rather than pro­vid­ing emo­tional sus­te­nance, the sugar-coat­ing of can­cer can ex­act a dread­ful cost,” she writes. “It re­quires the de­nial of un­der­stand­able feel­ings of anger and fear, all of which must be buried un­der a cos­metic layer of cheer.”

And, if pos­i­tive think­ing fails and the can­cer spreads or eludes treat­ment, “the pa­tient can only blame her­self: she is not be­ing pos­i­tive enough,” Ehren­re­ich adds.

It’s not just for can­cer, ei­ther. “If your busi­ness fails or your job is elim­i­nated, it must be be­cause you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t be­lieve firmly enough in the in­evitabil­ity of your suc­cess,” Ehren­re­ich rails.

The mem­bers of a Face­book group for peo­ple with fol­lic­u­lar lym­phoma (my can­cer) are on the same page.

“We need the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­press a full range of emo­tions with­out guilt and hav­ing to al­ways be pos­i­tive for oth­ers,” wrote one.

“My hus­band was Mr. Pos­i­tiv­ity with his can­cer. I am an Eey­ore by nature – gloom and doom and grump. He died. I didn’t. So go fig­ure,” posted an­other.

“Show up, take the drugs,” wrote a third. “That’s what takes care of the dis­ease. But a good at­ti­tude makes it eas­ier to show up.”

That last line most aptly de­scribes why I’ve been un­will­ing to claim my free pass.

Can­cer isn’t easy. It isn’t nec­es­sar­ily trans­for­ma­tive. But con­tin­u­ing to show up, rain or shine, gain or pain, with a tired but true smile on my face, is with­out ques­tion better for me and, just as im­por­tant, it’s better for my friends, fam­ily and co­work­ers when I present with some sem­blance of a rec­og­niz­able self-iden­tity.

I don’t get to play the can­cer card. The truth is, I don’t want to any­more. That just might be the most pos­i­tive out­come of this un­ex­pected jour­ney.

The writer’s book, To­taled: The Bil­lion-Dol­lar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is avail­able on Ama­zon and other on­line book­sell­ers. bri­an­blum.com


‘WE NEED the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­press a full range of emo­tions with­out guilt and hav­ing to al­ways be pos­i­tive for oth­ers.’

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