Thursday, November 16, 2006

Don't tell her to "Be positive"

In one of the little brochures that came with the "My Journey" pack put together by the Breast Cancer Network Australia, there is some terrific advice for "Helping a friend or colleague with breast cancer." Some of this seems very locally specific: I doubt that the restorative powers of Tim Tams are recognised in the US, for example; and I can think of many finer ways of introducing the beneficial anti-oxidant properties of the cocoa bean into the body. Mostly the advice is very sensible, and makes even more sense to me now than it did when I first read it. It is just over a month since my official diagnosis (and about seven weeks since I first noticed the incriminating dimple in a hotel bathroom in St Louis). Under the "Things that won't help" section, one suggestion rings with me today. "Don't tell her to 'Be positive'".

Now, this is a tricky one, since it's widely acknowledged that having a positive attitude can make a real difference to one's experience of illness and treatment. A friend of my partner's gave us Norman Cousins' 'Anatomy of an Illness', a classic tale of healing through active collaboration with the physician and positive will power (far more enabling to me than Sontag's 'Illness as Metaphor', since her discussion of cancer now seems rather dated). But it seems that telling someone who is afraid and anxious (ok, I've had a couple of bad days) to "be positive" would be about as useful as telling someone who is depressed to "cheer up". No one has actually said this to me, I should say; just the insistent little voice in my head worrying that I've not been feeling as resilient and positive as I was a few weeks ago.

Yesterday, for example, I didn't go for the daily walk I've prescribed for myself. Well, it *was* hailing on the West Gate bridge, and snowing in the Dandenongs, the far outer suburbs in the mountains to the east (this is spring in the new southern hemisphere of climate change), but I had a day of feeling sorry for myself, and allowing myself to get distracted from my best intentions. This morning I was tempted to stay in bed and read, but after some wise partnerly counselling about the dangers of cocooning myself, I did head off for my walk. I laughed at myself after fifteen minutes, though, realising that I had taken my cocoon with me: two layers of wool under a thick double-lined coat I had bought for a St Louis winter last year; a warm lambswool scarf I had bought in Edinburgh; and knitted gloves. I came home in warm sunshine carrying most of this stuff in my arms, and was able to sit down to fulfil another of the small imperatives I have given myself: to read for at least an hour a day towards an essay I am writing on Piers Plowman.

Along my walk, I was pondering the difficulties of trying to reform and change my life, over the course of my treatment, and in the years to come. I am ready to accept the conventional wisdom and the experience of patients and doctors that cancer can often be a sign to us to re-assess our priorities. So far, I haven't found that I want to throw it all in and take up mushroom-farming: I find merely that I want to re-direct my energies and find a way to streamline the chaos of books, papers, committees, teaching, grants, meetings, emails, letters, forms and databases, to allow more time for the things I love best: reading and writing, for work and pleasure; and music, for pleasure. I could try and manage it all better (I spent far too long the other day looking for a memory stick with a reference on it which I had hidden away somewhere; and ended up writing the reference again from scratch), but I think an even harder challenge will be to become one of those people who says things like "no, I'm sorry, I won't be able to do that". I've done it a few times already over the last few weeks, and of course I survived. I will have to think of these as rehearsals for when I am no longer sick, when I will really need to be stronger about this.

In the meantime, here's a resonant little quotation. The essay I read this morning was Kathryn Kerby-Fulton's "Langland and the Bibliographic Ego", in which she suggests that Langland revised the C version of the poem from an imperfect version of B not because it was the only one he had available, but because it was the version that was already abroad, already in circulation, and the one that most needed correcting and updating. She quotes Pearsall: "The C-reviser seems to have worked piecemeal, outward from certain cores of dissatisfaction, rather than systematically through B from beginning to end."

Working outward from certain cores of dissatisfaction? This seems to me a helpful way of thinking about gradually making some changes. No lightning bolts; no revelations; just the slow work of reformation through reading and writing around certain central cores and clusters of ideas.

4 comments:

Pavlov's Cat said...

What a brilliant spatial metaphor that 'outward from certain cores of dissatisfaction' is . It reminds me of the really deep, fundamental changes I saw in the way I write --changes more in the process than in the product -- that happened when I first began to compose straight onto the (computer, not typewriter) keyboard. Instead of building up the writing after the manner of knitting, watching my article/scarf get longer and longer, I learned to sketch out the overall plan and then expand it from certain points inside that outline, so that the piece expanded not from the bottom ('Three rolls of parchment!') but from multiple points throughout, rather after the manner of cell division, with much use of cut-and-paste.

(How funny that anyone under about 35 will never have done it any other way.)

If one were applying this febrile epic simile to the making of changes in one's life, I wonder what your equivalent of the computer would be. What is the new 'machine' through which, etc.

The 'be positive' thing is tricky, as you say. Coming from any person who is 'well', I should think it would sound like a massive chunk of presumptuous insensitivity and make you want to hit them. Moi, I am more inclined to hie me down to the Haigh's factory to find you some postable superior chocolate.

Anonymous said...

A great post, thank you. I did have a few people say "be positive" to me during my cancer treatment & it was just about the most depressing thing anyone could utter. There was one worse comment though - someone said (as a joke?) "I blame the PhD." I'd finished my PhD six months earlier. I wondered if she would have said such a thing if I were a man suffering from cancer. There's still a strand of thinking that implies women aren't really being suited for intellectual work. If they do too much of it, well, it's no wonder really that they get nasty women's illnesses, is it?

Stephanie Trigg said...

PC, yes, you got it! The idea of cell division is precisely what makes that metaphor resonant. The new machine? Not sure yet; probably something a little less industrial/industrious; something more like channelling, streamlining energies instead of dispersing them...

Meredith; oh that's vile! But I know what you mean; I have the same response when people talk of an 'epidemic' of breast cancer. As the experts say, we don't know why anyone gets cancer. Cells do odd abormal things all the time...

vinita said...

Breast Cancer network
Common Breast Cancer Myths

The first myth pertaining to this disease is that it only affects women.

Second myth that is associated with this disease is that if one has found a lump during an examination, it is cancer.

Third is that it is solely hereditary

The next myth associated with breast cancer is downright ridiculous. Would you believe, that in this day and age, some individuals still think that breast cancer is contagious?

Conversely, some individuals foolishly believe that breast size determines whether or not one gets cancer.

Finally, another myth that is associated with this disease is that it only affects older people. This is not so. Although the chance of getting breast cancer increases with age, women as young as 18 have been diagnosed with the disease.

You can find a number of helpful informative articles on Breast Cancer network at breast-cancer1.com

Breast Cancer network