I’ve changed my tag line.
I started this blog just over three years ago. Back then, I optimistically tagged it ‘staying positive following a triple negative breast cancer diagnosis’. I was convinced that having a positive attitude would help me to get through the physical and psychological mine field that lay ahead of me.
But here’s the thing; I’ve come to realise that as important as positive thinking can be, it can also be a trap. Cancer treatment is hard. There are times when it’s terrifying, and really, really sad. There are days when just getting out of bed is an achievement. If we’re too focused on staying positive it can actually become a source of anxiety and stress; we wonder if not being upbeat is undermining our recovery and then we get anxious about our anxiety and we spiral down from there.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to have become very wealthy by telling us to ‘be positive’. There were days during my treatment when my response to this was ‘I’m positive I’ve got cancer!’ There were also days when people would compliment me on being brave, or courageous or even ‘inspirational’. What concerns me about the positive thinking movement is the tendency to pathologise normal, human emotions and to make us feel guilty for having them.
That’s not to say that having a hopeful outlook hasn’t helped me. I’m certain that it has. I just think it’s important to acknowledge that part of being human is experiencing all kinds of emotions and none of them are bad. Some of them are uncomfortable, even painful, but that’s because they’re a reflection of how we’re feeling about some very difficult circumstances.
If something awful happens then sadness is part of how we get through it.
I sometimes wonder to what extent the depression epidemic is linked to enforced cheerfulness. Surrounded by upbeat social media and the highlights of other people’s lives are some people left feeling that any kind of sadness is some kind of failure? It the pressure to be outwardly cheerful while inwardly suffering part of the problem? I think it could be.
I’ve also seen a kind of haze around breast cancer, where there’s an expectation that our ‘journey’ will somehow enrich and reward us with new insights and a relentlessly upbeat perspective. Perhaps we need to acknowledge that while those of us that survive will certainly be changed, not all of those changes are cause for celebration.
I am happy to be alive. I’m also sad about the loss of my breasts and the ongoing health issues caused by treatment. This doesn’t stop me from having a great life but I think it’s part of what needs to be acknowledged. Perhaps instead of being positive all the time we should aim for contentment. This feels less forced. I am not happy all the time but I am generally content. I do have things that make me sad from time to time but they don’t overwhelm me.
I find that acknowledging uncomfortable feelings when they occur, making room for them and sitting with them for a while allows me to honestly process those feelings. I also find that when I forget to do this and try to run away from them they just seem to get stronger. I used to try to distract myself from uncomfortable feelings and now realise it was an excellent way to suck the joy out of whatever activity I was using for distraction.
The great irony of welcoming all of my emotions as normal and healthy is that, on the whole, I am much happier. Giving myself permission to be frightened or angry or frustrated has allowed me to recognise that all of my emotions are part of the richness of being human and that how I respond to those emotions is up to me. I can be angry without taking it out on someone else. I can be sad without that sadness dragging me into depression. Most importantly, I can have all of these emotions and know that they won’t give me cancer.
Stress is definitely bad for me but there are few things more stressful than trying to pretend to be happy when I’m just not feeling it.
And so I’d like to apologise to anyone that thought this blog was a prescription for suppressing any emotions other than happiness. Positivity is, for me, about developing a hopeful attitude to the future. It’s not about being happy all the time.
The most important thing I can do with an emotional response is to ask myself if it’s helping me to live the kind of life I want to live. In this regard, emotions like fear can actually be really helpful. Remembering treatment and being frightened about recurrence is a great incentive to me; it reminds me that I’ve made a lot of changes to my life, including a better diet, losing weight, daily yoga and generally being more grateful and mindful. I honestly believe these changes will improve my odds of survival.
And even if they don’t, they will improve the quality of my life, so they are definitely worth doing either way.
My tag line now reads ‘living well following treatment for triple negative breast cancer’. You can still go all the way back to the beginning of this blog and read about my treatment and all of the things that have happened in the last three years. My focus from here on in will be on living well and staying well. I’m hoping I can find plenty of interesting things to write about.