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Cancer And The Curse Of Relentless Optimism

31/03/2017 16:12
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About a year ago, when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer that had metastasised to my liver, I was told that my expected survivability rate was 10% in three years, the medical equivalent of a death sentence.

Once people know about your diagnosis, the sets of words that every cancer patient invariably hears from others are "be strong", "you are so brave", and most disconcertingly of all, "stay positive". It is peculiar to me that unlike other ailments, people think that there is a link between optimism and cancer. Whereas it would be rather daft to tell someone who has lost limbs or their eyesight or whose child has died during childbirth that they should be positive, somehow it escapes me why cancer patients (particularly those with a terminal diagnosis) should be positive. Have we been blessed with an illness that can be cured with a positive mental attitude? One wonders.

The advice to stay positive almost invariably comes from people who have never personally suffered cancer or experienced it in their immediate family. No cancer patient would tell another cancer patient to stay positive, we know better. We all have to struggle daily with our private battles. Without going into the gory details, let me outline what my cancer symptoms are on a good day. I wake up - after a really bad night's sleep - and then I feel as if someone had stuck a small tree branch in my rectum. As the day goes by, I eat, but the food I consume puts pressure on this imaginary tree branch. The tree branch, however, holds the food inside, so I get really bloated. By late evening, the tree branch slowly starts giving way, spurts of blood and faecal fluids follow... for hours. In order to avoid pooping in my bed, I spend most of the late night and early morning going between the toilet, my bed, and the sofa. If I am lucky, the tree branch falls off and I am then able to get some sleep at around 4 a.m. A few hours later, I wake up and the tree branch has been reinserted. A new day begins. This is what a good day feels like for me. Compared to the symptoms that other cancer patients suffer, I can consider myself quite lucky.

The cancer symptoms are just the starting point of what every cancer patient must endure. There are endless medical screenings, visits to the oncologist, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, radiofrequency ablation, operations. A laundry list of appointments and treatments that have the capacity to sap one's soul, no matter how strong you are mentally. Chemotherapy is the most likely treatment, at some stage, for all cancer patients. I have been extremely fortunate that I have tolerated chemotherapy quite well. Others are not so lucky. The effects of different chemotherapy chemicals on the human body are endless and bewildering, starting with hair loss, vomiting, nausea, extreme tiredness, and moving on to much more damaging effects on the skin, the feet, eyesight. There are also psychological effects, such as anxiety and depression. To keep one's sanity under these conditions is a monumental achievement, but to then be told to be positive is a step too far for many of us.

I am sure that there is a perception that there must be a link between mind and body. Hence the expectation that if one remains positive, then the body will heal itself. As a cancer patient, one is struck by the positive approach that other patients take on as they undergo treatment with an admirable sense of optimism, until they die. Do these individuals die because they failed to remain optimistic or because cancer is an illness that is relentless and will stop at nothing until it destroys you? My answer now is pretty clear. Cancer patients have been dealt a very bad set of cards. Ultimately, we live or die on the basis of how early our cancer is detected and how effectively it is treated medically. To remain positive to heal oneself is the ultimate exercise in self-delusion.

Is there room for appropriate optimism during one's fight with cancer? I certainly think that there is. I try to muster all of my positive energy on behalf of others, particularly those administrative and medical professionals who are responsible for my treatment. No matter how I feel, I do my absolute best to be a model patient, starting with the hospital receptionists who greet me, to the nurses (god bless them all), all the way through the most senior oncologists or surgeons. I am also positive in my engagements with other cancer patients, often wishing them a great day, asking them how their treatment is going. It is very hard to remain positive for oneself, but it is a pleasure to remain positive for the benefit of others, just to make their burden slightly better, if only for a few seconds...

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