What Could Be Wrong with "Positive Thinking"?
- Think happy thoughts.
- The power of positive thinking.
- Picture yourself getting better.
- Mind over matter.
From the physician's standpoint, there's nothing wrong with them at all. Some docs may even think they're a good idea in terms of "patient empowerment." Anything that gives the patient a sense that they're doing something -- anything -- will make them feel better than if they are just passive recipients of medical care.
Here's the problem: it puts a potentially painful amount of the responsibility for recovery squarely on the patient's shoulders. If they don't get better, it's because they didn't try hard enough; visualize clearly enough; want it badly enough. Because this is so often (if not always) not true, all this "positivity" has the potential to be a cruel two-edged sword.
I'm sure many oncologists and other physicians do their damndest to reassure patients that they are not to blame for their disease. I have news for them (the docs): patients don't believe you. They won't tell you; they'll come tell me. Full of shame and guilt, whispering through their tears, they confide in me. Almost all of them:
- "If only" they hadn't smoked, they wouldn't have gotten lung cancer.
- "If only" they hadn't eaten so much red meat, they wouldn't have gotten colon cancer.
- "If only" they had breastfed longer, they wouldn't have gotten breast cancer.
Now factor in the good, empowering physician -- often one with an open mind to alternative therapies -- who encourages the patient to "think positive." Visualize that chemo killing those nasty cancer cells. The mind-body connection is powerful: harness it for yourself!
Please note that I am NOT talking about hope. Keeping the patient's spirits up by providing hope is not a problem. The issue arises when the patient perceives that hope -- or positivity -- is part of the treatment that is under his control. Now, far from being just "hope", it's another responsibility for the patient.
- "OMG, I wasn't sure what cancer cells looked like; I must have gotten it wrong in my visualization."
- "Oops; I was really down this week. I didn't do my part. That's why my white count is down."
Better to say nothing than to inadvertently thrust that kind of responsibility on an unsuspecting patient. Support them in their own expressions of positivity, but don't go actively suggesting that "it might help." What patients are going to hear, if they don't get better, is that it was their fault.
The dear late Sarah said it very well in October of last year, eight months before her death from melanoma:
I'm just so tired of feeling like this is my fault or people implying that I can change it with visualization or positive thinking. Let me see you cure your next cold with positive thinking, and let me see you cure your next bout of food poisoning by visualizing an army of white blood cells attacking the bacteria! That would never occur to these people, but somehow they think that cancer is different? Ya, it's different, it is a hell of a lot more serious, powerful, sneaky and deadly! It is also incurable at late stages....
A lot of the "warriors" and "survivors" that we see on tv... we are led to believe survived because of sheer determination, positivity and strength of character. Nope, I dare say, they survived because they had itty bitty cancers in situ that have less than a 10% chance of spreading! Sure, the treatment sucks and they were scared, and lives changed forever. But the media makes them out to be these rays of hope and living testaments to the power of will and determination, when in fact, they were just damn lucky.
(I just want to make clear that this post has been gestating for months, separate in every respect from recent discussions of alternative medicine. It is not meant as a dig at CAM.)