I felt I was attacking that pie in my speech on the perils of a positive attitude, but I’m tired of people telling me how to feel. I gave a speech earlier this month at a terrific charity golf event. (No, I didn’t golf.) I was going to write out some key words on 3×5 cards, but after mentioning my speech topic to a few people, I realized I was wading into something quite controversial.

I was going to be dissing the insistence on having a positive attitude.

So I wrote it out and read it to an audience of happy golfers.

I began by telling of my decision to go public with my illness in the newspaper, and then to start blogging. Here are some excerpts:

Almost immediately what started flowing my way was compliments. Not just prayers and good wishes, but actual compliments. Countless people said some variation of: You have just the strength of character to beat this thing.

If it works for you, fine....

Your positive attitude means you’re going to win this battle.

Your sense of humor will help you lick this thing.

While I was flattered by the compliments, I was perplexed by the logic. Perhaps if I hadn’t lost both parents to cancer, I’d have a different attitude. But all I could think, in those early days, was “Strength of character? You didn’t meet mother. Sense of humor? You didn’t meet my father.”
A sense of humor will help sustain me during my treatment, definitely. But do only funny people manage to win against cancer? I don’t think so.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m certainly not dismissing any of these traits. To whatever extent I possess them, they’ve been vital, absolutely vital, for getting through each and every day lately.

So I have no intention of being unnecessarily despondent, or of giving over to cancer even an extra minute of any day.

But I haven’t banned any emotion from my repertoire these days – no matter how unpleasant. As another cancer patient said to me, “I have cancer. I have a right to be angry.”

I then said the only activity I’d banned was moping.

But I don’t force myself to have a positive attitude – and it drives me crazy when people order me to do so.  It’s not our attitude so much as our actions that make a difference. And here the two intertwine: If you are pessimistic about your diagnosis, you might neglect to take your medicine, or decide you don’t want to exercise even though your doctor says you should. In a hundred little ways, you sabotage your treatment plan.

Cancer patients are often praised for their bravery, but from my new vantage point — that of actually having cancer — it doesn’t feel brave. I haven’t faced any really hard decisions. Surgery? That was a no-brainer. Chemotherapy? Same thing.

My job isn’t hard. I just do what the doctors tell me. While some of it hasn’t been fun, it’s easy to find enough motivation for it: After all, I have everything to lose and everything to gain. That makes it very easy to put up with little things like losing sensation in most of my taste buds. So I can’t taste a brownie these days. Big deal. It’s small potatoes….which, by the way, being Irish, I still can taste.

So I don’t need much else in the way of motivation. But here’s the thing: When you have cancer, you become a little self-absorbed. You’re busy with your fight, and don’t have much time or energy for anything else.

That’s where the rest of you come in.

Deborah Toppmyer, M.D.

My audience was mostly individuals and corporate representatives who have supported this charity for 20 years now, and some recipients supported by the fundraising. They included the LPGA’s Val Skinner and oncologist Deborah Toppmeyer, of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. So I was speaking to people who had raised money, given money, or were doing good work with that money. I told them: “Those of you in cancer research or treatment….and those of you who help gather the resources to fund those efforts…you do need to have a positive attitude. You do need to have a sense of humor. You do need to be brave.”

I talked about the scientist who ingested bacteria himself to prove it caused stomach ulcers, and the researchers who ignored evacuation orders during Hurrican Katrina to protect their lab experiments.

I talked about the perserverance needed when experiments come up dry, and the need to avoid discouragement when a theory doesn’t pan out.

I talked about how hard it is to keep fund-raising – especially for volunteers — and to avoid becoming pessimistic or angry over a disappointment or setback, instead of finding the humor in it: It can’t be easy to hear a lot of “no’s” and still believe you’ll find enough “yesses.”

It takes exceptional people to keep something like this going for 20 years. All of you here today have many claims on your time and your resources – and yet you’ve selected this day and this cause.

Your strength of character will help us lick this thing.

Your sense of humor will help us beat this.

Your positive attitude will help us win this battle.

And I thanked them.

Kathleen O’Brien has been a journalist for three decades. Her long-running column for the Newark Star Ledger “looks at life from the kaleidoscopic perspective of wife, mother, taxpayer, commuter and worker bee.” But this year, O’Brien began a different sort of commute: a journey through breast cancer. WVFC is honored to share some of O’Brien’s Ledger blog about her experiences,  “We’ll Know More on Monday.”  We’re grateful for her for joining us here.

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  • Kathleen O'Brien November 5, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Thanks, Violet. It really is striking how determined people are to tell you how to feel. They do it to be helpful; they’ve read or heard about cancer patients who recoil at hearing any bad news. I get that. But it still is strange to be on the receiving end of emotional marching orders.

    My oncologist said it can be quite awkward when relatives of the patient try to get her to join in. She’s told: “And it’s important for him to have a positive attitude, right, doctor?”

  • Violet Snow November 4, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Barbara Ehrenreich, after a struggle with cancer, recently published a book on this exact topic. So it’s a viewpoint whose time has come–good for you, for bucking the tide.