Positive Thinking for Cancer Patients and the Tyranny of Self Blame

by Catherine Held, PhD

Tiffanie, a woman going through cancer treatment, recently asked me about the role of positive thinking in healing from cancer.

I am a strong advocate for the power of positive thinking and its role in healing. At the same time, this is an important issue in the conversation about cancer. I believe that there is a “Shadow Side” to positive thinking when it comes to cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.

Everything Happens for a Reason

Commonly heard refrains within popular thought are “Everything happens for a reason,” and “We are responsible for everything that happens in our lives.” In more than fifteen years of being with cancer patients, I have seen these ideas twisted into self-blame. The thinking goes like this, “If I am responsible for everything that happens in my life, then it is my fault that I am sick.” It’s easy to fall into this trap even with something as simple as a common cold. People with life-threatening illnesses can “beat themselves up” for being sick. They sometimes become their own “mind police” obsessed with the need to have only positive thoughts and afraid to express their anger and fear, certain that it will prevent recovery.

Blaming the Patient

As bad as cancer patients blaming themselves is when others point the finger. I have seen well-meaning loved ones blame the patient for their illness because they do not have a “good attitude” or follow up suggestions for alternative treatments. Beware of loved ones that want you to have only positive thoughts or accuse you of denial of the “truth” of your situation. They are probably driven by their own need to feel more comfortable in a scary situation. Surround yourself with people that allow you to just be yourself–whether it is mad, grumpy, weak, sad or not in the mood to talk about your illness.

Blaming yourself (or being blamed by others) for your illness or difficult times is absolutely counter-productive to healing and can keep you from optimum recovery.

Contributing to your Illness vs. Making Meaning

Contributing to an illness is very different than causing an illness. Your illness is probably due to a much more complex set of circumstances both internally (in your body) and externally (such as the environment) than you know. For example, while smoking is known to be a leading cause of lung cancer, there are people that smoke for decades that don’t get cancer. I am not advocating smoking! With the exception of some hereditary cancers, doctors don’t really know why one person gets cancer and another one doesn’t. What may be a lot more helpful is to find some gifts or silver lining from your experience. Going through cancer is a traumatic event. Part of trauma recovery is to “restore” or “re-story” the experience into one of meaningful survival.

Making Meaning: My Mom’s Story

Here’s an example from my mom. My 81-year old mom has been going through radiation and chemotherapy for small cell lung cancer. Small cell lung cancer is the kind that comes from smoking, and exposure to secondhand smoke and/or asbestos. During and after World War II, smoking was considered glamorous and was very popular. U.S. GIs were even given free cigarettes by the government. Mom was a smoker for more than twenty years, although she quit in 1964 when the Surgeon General came out linking smoking to lung cancer. She and my dad quit smoking upon the prompting of my little brother.

Questions to Consider:

  • Is it helpful to blame an 81-year old woman for something she stopped doing 45 years ago? (No)
  • Is her illness part of a bigger cultural story and context? (Yes)
  • Can we derive meaning that is helpful to the healing process from the experience? (Yes)

Receiving Help During Cancer Treatment

My mom lives alone in southern California more than 400 miles away, while my brother lives in Idaho and my sister lives in Chicago. Mom is a very competitive bridge player living in an adult community. She plays bridge several times a week. Before her illness, Mom had told me that her bridge buddies were simply acquaintances and not real friends. She was surprised, somewhat embarrassed, and also deeply touched by the care extended to her by those same bridge buddies during her treatments. They gave her rides, showed up with chicken soup and offered practical help. Mom was also surprised and pleased that my siblings and I traveled long distances to be with her throughout her treatments.

The Gift: Mom learned that she was loved and valued more than she knew previously. The love had been there all along. Her illness elicited but did not cause the demonstration of that love. Buddhists might talk of turning poison into medicine, gardeners would talk of turning manure into fertile soil, and my mom might talk of making lemonade out of lemons. However you look at it, finding meaning or a gift while in the midst of a difficult challenge eases the experience.

Turn the Blame Off: Look at the stories you tell yourself about how or why you got cancer. If your thoughts are self-critical and self-blaming, you may need some help from a professional, a support group or some other resource. Beware of well-intentioned people blaming you for your illness. Self-blame and being around people that judge you are counterproductive to getting well, especially if they keep you from getting the support you deserve. The rise in cancer may be due more to the environment than lack of positive thinking. Your job is radical self care. Be sure to surround yourself with people that accept you as you are. At the same time, find the gifts in your experience and, if it works for you,practice positive thought.

Catherine Anne Held, Ph.D. is an energy healer and psychologist based in Northern California. She is the author of the recently-published Delia’s Book: Guidance for Cancer Healing, an inspirational and practical guide for people with cancer and the people that love them. She has worked with cancer patients and people with life-threatening illness for more than fifteen years. Her website is http://www.ancestorsway.com.

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