Helping Children When A Family Member Has Cancer: Dealing With Recurrence or Progressive Illness

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Isn’t having a positive attitude important in fighting the cancer?

When you have cancer, grief and sadness are normal.

In recent years, much attention has been paid to the importance of having a positive attitude. Some go so far as to suggest that such an attitude will stop the cancer from growing or prevent death. Patients are even told that they will never beat the cancer if they don’t stop feeling sad, bad, depressed, or some other so-called “negative” feeling. This kind of message is destructive to people who are dealing with cancer and a recurrence. They are fighting for their lives and then are told they are responsible for causing their own illness. And to make matters worse, they may feel like they aren’t supposed to grieve or feel sad over the new hardships and major changes in their lives. Please do not allow others’ misguided attempts to encourage positive thinking place the burden of your cancer on you. That is not accurate, and it’s not fair to you.

Cancer can’t be controlled by a positive attitude.

Cancer is not caused by a person’s negative attitude nor is it made worse by a person’s thoughts. You might be better able to manage your life and cancer treatment when you are able to look at things in a positive light, but that’s not always possible either. It’s healthier to admit that cancer can cause you and your loved ones to feel sad. Once you can admit that reality, it’s much easier to get on with your life, whether that life is measured in days, months, or years. Some of those days will be good days; some of those days will be not so great. Most of us know that this is the natural course of life anyway—with or without cancer.

People may tell you about studies that show patients with a positive attitude live longer. Your child or teen may hear something like this and suggest it to you, in the hope that it will offer more control over how long you might live. These studies often offer anecdotal evidence (people’s stories) based on too few patients and questionable research methods. No solid, credible research has shown that a patient’s attitude has anything to do with whether the person will live or die. There are patients who live longer than they are expected to, but researchers do not know why. If they did, they could certainly use that information to try to help many people. But usually, people outliving their predicted lifespans is more related to how hard it is to make accurate predictions about how long a person will live. So don’t let the positive attitude myths stop you or your children from talking about their true feelings with loved ones or the cancer team. People with positive attitudes can still die of their cancer. People with negative attitudes often live a normal lifespan despite their cancer. It’s important for children to know that everyone gets through cancer in their own way.

When others tell you about God’s plans

Along those same lines, there may be times when friends or relatives try to reassure you or your children with comments like “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle,” or “God must have a reason that this has happened.” While people say these things with the very best of intentions, if you are struggling with spiritual doubts, the thoughts and feelings invoked by such comments might only add to your stress. Sometimes people say these things because they just don’t know what else to say. You may feel very annoyed and even angry at their insensitivity. Sometimes this can be a good topic to talk over with another cancer patient or your nurse or support group. They will understand where you are coming from. How do you respond to such comments? Many times this is a battle you just don’t want to fight! Since these people are trying to help, just a simple “thank you” and changing the subject may be the best response. If this is a problem your children are having, you may want to talk with them about ways to respond.

Last Medical Review: 07/20/2012
Last Revised: 07/20/2012