Toxic Positivity Is 100% Real

Since going public with my cancer, the amount of support has been overwhelming. I’m so thankful to touch and be touched by so many people. I’ve received several private messages about the personal struggles in others’ lives, and how my story has motivated them. I teared up multiple times while reading everyone’s messages. For the longest time, I mediated an internal conflict over whether to share my experience. But upon receiving such heartfelt responses, I knew there was no reason for regrets.

However, I couldn’t help but soon feel that I overdosed on positivity.

If you asked me half a year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to give much of an opinion on the nuances of positivity. I certainly would have been flummoxed by the notion of “overdosing” on it. But although nothing about my cancer has ever made sense, I’ve learned that this much is true: toxic positivity is 100% real. 

I wanted to address some of the realities of cancer, those of which are often sequestered by the media.

“I’m sorry _______________, but at least ________________ !”

I’ve been told this line plenty of times since my diagnosis in December. You can insert a number of combinations in the blanks:

“I’m sorry you’ve been feeling really down, but at least you’re feeling a lot better today!”

“I’m sorry the side effects have been hard, but at least this is your last chemo!”

“I’m sorry it’s been really tiring – I can’t even imagine – but at least it’ll be over soon.”

“I’m sorry this happened to you, but at least you caught it early.”

These are all well-intentioned statements from people who genuinely care. In another life where I never got sick, I probably would have conveyed the same wishes to someone in my life that was. So, it took me some time to realize why this expression felt empty to me. The second clause, the at least, is a modifier. It shakes off the misfortunes of the first clause. It quickly brushes off the tragedies in a brusque pivot towards the bright side.

It only focuses on the positive. 

The thing about this phrase is that it doesn’t give time to acknowledge the negatives. Respect the negatives. Recognize the towering waves of the storm. It’s okay to admit and talk about just how terrible a situation is. You can be positive, while still acknowledging the suffering.

Consumer culture values inspirational stories. We like hearing about the astounding strength of other human beings, as motivation for facing the unique battles in our own lives. And for good reason, too: it’s amazing how great of a fire the human spirit can spark.

But we often receive snapshots of people’s strife: the introduction of the unfortunate challenge in so and so’s life, and the eventual, amazing feat of overcoming it. This isn’t to minimize one’s struggles and the accomplishment of conquering them; he or she has every right to feel proud of them. But these types of narratives are solely book ends. Exposition and resolution. Skim over the rising action, the climax, the falling action: the meat of the story.

The meat of my story?

I woke up two days ago feeling like I was dying. Or if I wasn’t, I definitely felt like I wanted to. There’ve been days I was too weak to speak. I’ve spent days just ceding to the aches that course through my body, allowing myself to be slammed by the feelings of weakness that chemotherapy brings. On other days, I’ve harbored really dark thoughts. My mental health has most definitely been impacted by chemotherapy, though by keeping nearly everything in, I know I am not faultless in this. I’ve been resentful at the world to have found myself in this position, resentful at everyone else for never being able to truly understand. I’ve spent days avoiding talking to people and evading texts.

I had a CT scan last week in preparation for radiation – the first I’ve had in months since my initial diagnostic. What I hadn’t expected was the sense of anxiety I felt during it. Not because of the possibility of the results, but because being in that tube reminded me of what it felt like back in the beginning. I was back to that place where so much had happened within the short span of a month, from my diagnosis to my surgery to my fertility preservation procedure. It was suddenly December again, where every day my family and I held no certainties about anything anymore. It felt almost traumatic. I blinked back tears lying alone in the giant tube of a machine feeling more isolated than ever.

There’s been some wallowing, to be sure. Admittedly, cancer has made me feel a bit more cynical these days. It’s probably facilitated the writing of this post, but I think toxic positivity goes beyond that. It can make one feel inclined to suppress their negative emotions. It leaves one unintentional message: we don’t really want to hear about your struggles.

It goes back to, “I’m sorry you’re __________, but at least ________________”: there’s an underlying narrative of adhering to the positive. These mindsets dismiss the difficult times. It’s the same message in, “Just look on the bright side,” or “I’m so glad it’s over now” or even “Hang in there!”

Sometimes, positive thoughts and words of encouragement are not what’s needed at the moment. In fact, sometimes positivity may be the last thing a cancer patient needs. Maybe this calls for a shift in the dialogue. Or better yet, simply start a dialogue. Take time to talk about the bad times, empathize with those going through them.

Start conversations with:

“What’s helped you cope during these times the most?”

“What’s been the worst part?”

“What’s been the hardest part?”

or even just,

“What has it been like?”

“How have you been doing, honestly?”

The use of these questions will probably depend on how close you are to someone. For some, talking through struggles may be a valuable form of coping. However, I’m aware that not everyone might want to really talk about them. For those who might not feel comfortable talking about their experience, at least these questions acknowledge the hardship.

When you’re dealt with as unlucky of a hand as cancer, sometimes you just want to be negative. And that’s my prerogative: I don’t need to be positive all the time. And that’s one thing I’m positive about. – Kendahl Servino

Click here for more tips on what not to say to someone who is grieving.

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