Last Tuesday’s New York Times had a commentary, A Fighting Spirit Won’t Save Your Life caused me to pause and think.
The author, Richard Sloan, who is a professor of behavioral medicine at the Columbia University Medical Center, is attempting to debunk the belief that getting sick is a punishment for being a bad person and that having a positive attitude will allow you to survive your disease longer.

He points out that people with a very positive attitude still get sick and do die from their illness. He also points out that getting sick are not a punishment for being evil or doing bad things. He says, “Cancer doesn’t care if we’re good or bad, virtuous or vicious, compassionate or inconsiderate. Neither does heart disease or AIDS or any other illness or injury.”

I have never been in a support group where it was even mentioned that our cancer is our own fault, a punishment for some indiscretion. However, I do know that this was a very prevalent belief in the not long ago history. Cancer was never discussed, doctors often elected not to tell their patients they had cancer and the word cancer was only whispered, as if saying the word would bring cancer on to our own head.

In many of our support groups we do talk about the role of our attitude and how it influences our eventual outcome. Dr. Sloan, in his commentary, belittles the role of attitude as he fails to recognize the role it plays in our quality of life. We may still get sick and we may still die from our cancer no matter what our attitude is, but we can and do influence the quality of life through our attitude.
I still believe that a positive attitude, optimism and “a fighting spirit” does change the course of my journey with advanced prostate cancer. It will not cure me, it might not extend my life, but it will make the time I have better for me and for my family. Isn’t that the most important aspect of living?

Joel T Nowak, M.A., M.S.W.