The power of positivity and cancer

12 Nov 2020

When you think of the word ‘positivity’ it conjures up images of smiling, laughter, and an optimistic view of the world. However, these three things can be elusive if you’ve just been diagnosed as high-risk or diagnosed with cancer.

“After that kind of news there is a tendency to get too far ahead of yourself, and you might focus a lot on the worst-case scenario,” explains psychologist Dr Jodie Fleming, author of A Hole in my Genes. “That’s because we are hardwired to survive and so when there's a threat to our safety, our brain tends to focus on that threat to motivate us towards doing whatever it is we need to do to survive.”

Dr. Fleming, who is BRAC1 positive and has had breast cancer twice, says that these thoughts can be overwhelming, but they are completely normal.

“It's normal to feel sad. It's normal to feel afraid, and it’s normal to grieve,” she says. “Basically, every feeling is normal as long as it doesn't last too long, cause us too much distress, or impact on our functioning.”

If you are finding it hard to lift yourself out of any negative thoughts, Dr. Fleming suggests it might be time to focus on incorporating some positivity into your life. But not in the way you might imagine.

Controlling our reactions

When dealing with life-changing news, such as a cancer or a high-risk diagnosis, some people seem to adapt more easily and have a more positive outlook than others, and Dr. Fleming says that the key to why might lie in some new research.

“The latest science tells us that our wellbeing is thought to be comprised of 50% nature (what we were born with), 10% of what life throws at us (life events), and the remaining 40% is made up of what we do and how we think. And what I find really exciting is that last bit is entirely within our control,” says Dr. Fleming.

These findings show that we have more of a say over our body’s reactions that perhaps we previously thought.

“I think in general; most people would actually expect that percentage to be a lot higher,” she says. “And so, when we think about events, whether it's a pandemic or whether it's a breast cancer diagnosis, that actually only accounts for about 10% of how that impacts your entire wellbeing.”

Encouraging positivity

Numbers aside, it can feel impossible to see a ‘silver lining’ in some situations, however, Dr. Fleming says to forget the notion that positivity has to be ‘putting on a brave face’ and being constantly positive (also known as toxic positivity). Instead, the first step in the right direction is to focus on the elements, such as your reactions, that you can control.

“Of course, it's normal to not feel positive, it's normal to be scared out of your wits,” she says. “What is important is to go back to those 50/10/40 percentages. What is within your control?’

For example, Dr. Fleming suggests if you’re scared because you don't know a lot about what's going to happen with your treatment, ask yourself, how can I reduce my anxiety about that? One way might be to ask your treatment team all the questions you have. That way, you might get answers to, say, 50% of them, so you don’t have them ‘swirling around in your head’.

Take control by also doing the things that would normally make you feel good. These could be spending time with your family, doing a hobby, exercising. However, Dr. Fleming does admit that she found during treatment the usual things might not quite cut it, so you might need to ‘up the ante’ a little bit with your self-care routine.

Be in the moment

Another way to encourage positivity during challenging times is to practice mindfulness. And although that sounds like a buzzword without much substance, there is a growing body of research confirming its health benefits.

However, what is mindfulness and how do you do it?

“Well, first of all, it’s probably easier to describe what it's not,” says Dr Fleming. “So, it's not about stopping your thoughts and making uncomfortable feelings go away. It's not about having a clear mind. It's about guiding your awareness onto something that's actually happening in the present moment. Without judgment.”

With mindfulness and also meditation, Dr. Fleming says not to get too worked up if your mind wanders. When it does, simply bring it back to your breathing.

If that is challenging, she suggests trying ‘mindful grounding’, where you ask yourself: ‘What are five things I can see right now?’, ‘And what are five things I can hear right now’, and ‘What five things I can smell right now?’.

If you’re already feeling overwhelmed, Dr. Fleming says don’t worry, you only need to do five minutes a day of mindfulness to get the flow-on effect of that practice.

The art of being grateful

Along with mindfulness, Dr. Fleming believes practicing gratitude is essential. And while feeling grateful might not come naturally to you in the middle of treatment, Dr. Fleming says it’s easier than you might think.

“Being mindful and grateful isn’t a huge commitment, for example, starting a gratitude journal doesn't have to take a lot of time, but because it forces you to consciously come back into the moment and consciously evaluate what's going well in your life, it has a massive effect on your mindset and overall wellbeing,” she says.

In fact, studies have shown that by incorporating mindfulness and gratitude into our lives, we can help improve our mood, our ability to sleep well, aid our digestive functioning and boost our immune system.

Lastly, Dr. Fleming says that a good way to encourage positivity within a challenging situation is to focus on our social connections to help with feelings of loneliness, make sure you eat a balanced diet and do exercise, which she called the ‘best antidepressant ever.