When Cancer Comes Back: Cancer Recurrence

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“Is having a positive attitude important in fighting the cancer? My friends say it is, but I feel sad and discouraged.

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 people 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 other so-called “negative” feelings. This kind of message is destructive to people who are dealing with cancer and 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 as if 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 to 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 much healthier to admit that having cancer can make you and your loved ones feel sad. Once you can admit that reality, it is easier to get on with your life, whether that life is measured in days, months, or years. Some of those days will be good, some 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 that patients with a positive attitude live longer. These studies often offer anecdotal evidence (people’s stories) based on too few patients and questionable research methods. No solid, well-accepted 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. So don’t let the positive attitude myths stop you from telling your loved ones or your cancer team how you feel. People with positive attitudes still die from cancer. People with negative attitudes often live a normal lifespan despite their cancer. Everyone gets through cancer in their own way.

What do I do when others say thoughtless things?

Many people feel nervous and awkward when they learn someone’s cancer has come back. They often don’t know what to say or do. You may hear things like, “I know how you feel,” or “You’ll be OK,” or “Stay strong.” They’re trying to say something hopeful and encouraging, but it doesn’t sound that way to you – in fact, it may seem hurtful and insensitive. You may be thinking, “You don’t know how I feel, I might not be OK, and I certainly don’t want to act strong all the time!”

Along those same lines, friends or relatives might try to reassure you with comments like “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle,” or “God must have a reason that this has happened.” Sometimes these words might make us feel better – we want to believe them! But sometimes they have the opposite effect. While people say these things with the very best of intentions, if you are struggling to find meaning in what’s happening, the thoughts and feelings invoked by such comments might only add to your stress.

People say things like this because they don’t know what else to say. You may feel very annoyed and even angry. Sometimes this can be a good topic to talk over with another cancer patient or your nurse or support group. They’ll understand where you are coming from. How do you respond to such comments? With close friends, you might want to share how you really feel when you hear things like this. But many times it’s 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 easiest response.

Last Medical Review: 07/28/2015
Last Revised: 07/28/2015