Is a positive attitude about survival useful or appropriate when someone is diagnosed with cancer? Is optimism always an asset as an approach to life, or indeed death?
We all love positive energy and celebrate someone who triumphs against the odds, but for many that is not possible. Cancer can be relentless and pitiless; half of those diagnosed with this disease die from it, irrespective of their determination to fight.
A daunting number of friends and relatives have recently died from cancer; more or less within a year of diagnosis. Their own and family reactions will be familiar to you who work in the field. They staggered under the news. Then hopes rose as they learnt about possible treatments. During a period of maximum engagement, they did their best as patient or supporter to reach the distant shore of survival.
In my unscientific sample however, the undertow proved too strong.
As treatments failed, the patient became exhausted; options narrowed, hope became fragmented. The narrative switched to unlikely new treatments, and eventually a need for some breathing space and a bit more time. The final stages were rapid.
Where do you find resilience?
I am wondering what those of you who apply your skills and knowledge to saving life tell yourselves about those you cannot save. Where do you find resilience you need for the next patient?
It is evident that a positive approach to cancer is not always about winning a battle. Sometimes a cure is simply out of reach. In such cases, treatment and care to achieve the best possible quality of life, delivered with compassion, cannot be ‘failure’.
Certainly, the people I know found real positives in loving human interaction after curative treatment ended.
A cousin who put a premium on his independence experienced a remarkable strengthening of his marriage and family life in his final year.
A relative who died leaving a son under the age of two spent her final days surrounded by love. She and her husband made plans for their son after her death; her father read to her; her brother crossed the world to be with her.
A man in the final days of life asked for a latte and Danish pastry to be brought to his bedside. He and his sister responded with almost ridiculous pleasure to this familiar treat he could neither eat nor drink.
As a journalist, I am aware of my own ignorance. But even the most skilled and knowledgeable lack the power of life and death or the gift of prophecy. Neither cutting edge treatment nor a positive approach guarantees survival.
At a certain stage, a determination by the patient to make the most of remaining life and by professionals and family to deliver treatment and care with compassion offers a route to the happiest possible ending. Better to help the patient to be ready for anything, than to stake all on what may prove to be a false positive.