You Want Me to Do What?

“Are you someone who enjoys the unsolicited opinions of strangers and acquaintances? If so, I can’t recommend cancer highly enough. You won’t even have the first pathology report in your hands before the advice comes pouring in. Laugh and the world laughs with you; get cancer and the world can’t shut its trap,” wrote Caitlin Flanigan in her recent article for The Atlantic. 

If you’re a cancer patient then you’ll no doubt be able to empathize with the author’s lament on the subject of getting unsolicited advice. I know I’ve certainly felt high levels of frustration as people try to inform me how to live my life or deal with my disease. In some cases, the information we’re presented with is demonstrably inaccurate, scientifically unproven or even dangerous. After a decade of being offered personal as well as medical advice, caution and scepticism have become almost second nature to me. I inherently ask myself where is this information or recommendation coming from? Precisely who is telling me this, is the source an acknowledged expert in their field? Is what they are saying accurate, or could what they’re communicating contain a bias or a particular agenda?

Like most cancer patients I was particularly vulnerable in the months following my diagnosis. When my gynecologist gave me the results of my pathology report and said “it’s cancer,” I felt as if all that I knew and held certain about the world was suddenly obliterated or in doubt. Psychologists have observed that as human beings we tend to uphold something called the just world hypothesis or just world fallacy. We cling to the idea that the world is a fair and orderly place where what happens to people generally is what they deserve. In other words, bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. However, when an individual is diagnosed with cancer their sense of stability and belief in a just or fair world is often shaken— they can no longer rationalize much of what they thought was true. Some cancer patients become distressed, especially when they recognize that according to the just world hypothesis, they must somehow be responsible for their disease or deserve it. 

The truth I’ve come to accept is that I didn’t cause my cancer and I don’t have the ability to simply will it away. However, when my ovarian cancer was initially diagnosed, I was more desperate and naïve, more willing to imagine these things were still under my control. Looking back at the trauma I faced as a new patient, both my desperation and need for reassurance were justifiable. In 2012 I was hospitalized for over a month and a half at Calgary’s Foothills Medical Centre. The women’s cancer ward is predominately a place of bravery, triumph, heartbreak and tears. When I looked into some of the other patients’ eyes, I could see them begging for a future, and I understood that they would do almost anything for the gift of just a few more months in this world. 

Regrettably, some of the things that people either said or wrote to me during that time were highly inappropriate. Many of their suggestions worsened, or even exploited, my fear and vulnerability. In particular they reinforced the misconception that I could somehow control the course of the insidious disease that had invaded my body. On occasion this might have been due to malevolence, but I still believe the leading cause of people’s poor advice was ignorance.

I was recently reminded of some of the damaging words that were spoken to me by one member’s post in an online cancer support group. I nearly gasped in astonishment as, with a measure of composure, she conveyed the advice that she had just received from her oncologist. 

“He told me I needed to forget I ever had cancer, disassociate with all cancer friends or groups and eliminate thoughts of cancer and stress from my life to prevent recurrence,” she disclosed.

I was angry and astonished that such irrational advice had come from a cancer expert, an oncologist. What type of medical professional actually believes that cancer patients have the power to cause or prevent a recurrence simply by ruminating about their disease coming back or by not dwelling on it? This to the point of scolding patients for acknowledging their illness or the possibility it will someday recur. 

Of course, I don’t deny that a positive attitude and mental practices such as meditation can both play an important role in cancer recovery. Certainly, the mind is powerful and our attitude toward healing is important, but scientific evidence indicates that we cannot wish or ignore cancer away. 

The American Cancer Society and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health say there’s no evidence that meditation or support groups have a significant impact on survival rates. They can do all sorts of wonderful things, like reducing stress and allowing you to live in the moment instead of worrying about the next scan. However, there is no evidence that these methods will help you to achieve remission or slow the progression of the disease in your body.

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