Positive thinking and other myths about cancer


Somebody you know has been diagnosed with cancer and has become withdrawn, moody and bad-tempered. You think they’re not handling this well at all. Do you say:

a) You’ll be fine. Be positive.

b) You need to talk about it. I know a good counsellor.

c) You’re going through the stages of grief. It’s normal.

If you ticked any of the above, sorry, you’re not helping. According to Dr Paul D’Alton, Head of the Department of Psycho-oncology at St Vincent’s University Hospital Dublin, there is no right or wrong way to respond to a cancer diagnosis.

“Cancer isn’t just a physical illness, it’s an emotional one too,” he told me in an interview for an Irish Independent feature. “If we don’t take care of ourselves emotionally, it can be very destructive, both on the person with cancer and on those around them.”

So while we may rush in with the best intentions, assuring our loved one they’ll be fine and trying to jolly them out of the doldrums, we can end up making them feel worse. It’s something that emerged in a Macmillan UK study which showed that up to one in seven people with cancer feels they have no close friend they can talk to about their disease. Dr D’Alton wasn’t in the least surprised, and suggested the rates are likely to be no different in Ireland.

Here’s what he thinks of the options listed above:

a) You’ll be fine. Be positive.

Dr D’Alton: “One of the worst things you can say to someone with cancer is, ‘You’ll be fine.’ If they feel far from fine, they might not want to share that for fear of letting people down.There is a terrible emphasis on being positive, and that doesn’t alway help. Don’t enforce or isolate someone by insisting they stay positive. And positivity, enforced or not, has no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the disease.”

b) You need to talk about it. I know a good counsellor.

Dr D’Alton: “There is a huge emphasis on people being encouraged to talk, see a counsellor straight away, but that isn’t always necessary. We don’t need to turn ourselves into Californians. People deal with cancer as they would with other difficulties in their lives. If they happen to be pragmatic, task-focused types, they’ll bring that approach to their dealings with cancer. Whatever way you choose to handle it is okay. Talking is by no means mandatory.”

c) You’re going through the stages of grief. It’s normal.

Dr D’Alton: “There is no such thing as the ‘stages of grief.’ Somebody diagnosed with cancer might feel a rush of anger, denial, sadness and all sorts of other emotions within an hour, or 15 minutes. And those feelings can return at any point, in any order. It’s not a linear process. It’s completely erratic. Emotions do not progress in predictable stages. Feelings can be all over the place.”


Dr Paul D’Alton’s 5 tips to help a friend with cancer

  1. Don’t isolate the person by insisting they stay positive.
  2. Don’t know what to say? Try this: ‘I don’t know what to say. I’m really sorry.’
  3. Never say, ‘Let me know what I can do to help.’ Be specific. Say, ‘I can bring you to hospital on Friday,’ or ‘I can do your shopping,’ or ‘I can collect the kids from school.’
  4. Take the shoulder-to-shoulder approach, not eye-to-eye. Sometimes the best place to have a conversation is in the car, where you’re sitting next to each other, both facing in one direction.
  5. Never say, ‘You’ll be fine.’ The person might not want to let you down by admitting that they feel anything but fine.


The loneliness of cancer can strike at any time

For Gerard Ingoldsby from Ballincollig, Co. Cork, the diagnosis wasn’t the worst part of his cancer journey. He talked openly about it with friends and colleagues, and went through 18 months of chemo, radiotherapy and surgery with stoic determination, at the end of which he was given the all-clear. So why, when he just found out that his treatment was a complete success, did he feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness that threatened to engulf him?

Find out here: The Loneliness of Cancer by Celine Naughton, Irish Independent