One-Minute Book Reviews

November 13, 2007

The ‘Tyranny of Positive Thinking’ and Cancer Patients — A Physician-Author Says That It’s Not Always Best to Tell People to ‘Be Optimistic’

Can you give too much encouragement to people who are ill?

By Janice Harayda

Not long ago, I reviewed Betty Rollin’s Here’s the Bright Side and objected to its theme that all human suffering holds “a hidden prize waiting to be found.” I argued that some losses are so sad — the death of a child, say — that urging people to find their “bright side” is cruel.

Later I read some interesting, related comments by Jimmie Holland, chair of Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. They appeared in an article Leslie Brody wrote about caring for her husband, who has pancreatic cancer, for the New Jersey daily, The Record, on May 20, 2007.

“Think twice before telling the patient to ‘be positive,’” Brody wrote. She added:

“Dr. Jimmie C. Holland, author of The Human Side of Cancer and a pioneer in the psychological aspects of the illness, has written about the ‘tyranny of positive thinking.’ When people insist patients should ‘be optimistic,’ they imply that those who get sicker may be to blame for not trying hard enough to stay upbeat and conquer the disease.

“Holland says a patient’s mind-set might help him stick to a grueling chemo regimen, but it’s less clear whether attitudes and emotions in themselves can affect tumor growth or the body’s response. Patients — and their families — should feel free to vent depressing and anxious thoughts without being judged.

“Instead of saying ‘Chin up,’ or, ‘You’ll be fine,’ it’s better to say, ‘Hang in there,’ or ‘We’re thinking of you,’ or ‘We’re hoping for the best.’”

Links: To read the original review of Here’s the Bright Side, click here To read about The Human Side of Cancer, click here

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Having experienced bereavement first hand through cancer- I lost my mother aged 52 – I’m not sure if Holland is being specific enough. True, its unhelpful to tell the patient to smile away inanely, when they’ll clearly be dead by the end of the week, but perhaps encouragement to enjoy their last days. This is the mental hurdle that has to be leapt, to transcend the essential sadness of time on earth drawing to a close, and attempt to fill the tiny remainder with some joy. My mother, bless her, spent some of her last moments trying to convince my Dad not to sell their caravan!

    Comment by kevmoore — November 13, 2007 @ 8:06 am | Reply

  2. Based on my experience of having lost relatives to cancer, you expressed the dilemma well. I suspect I’m the one who wasn’t specific enough, not Holland.

    The National Book Awards are being announced tomorrow night, and I’m trying to get through some of the finalists. So I didn’t say as much about Holland’s ideas as I might have at another time. But there are enough books coming out about cancer and other illnesses that I’ll probably return to the subject before long. Maybe I can go into more detail then. Thanks so much for your comment in the meantime.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — November 13, 2007 @ 11:48 am | Reply

  3. I recently survived NHL and received many “stay positive” and “God has a plan” comments. Sometimes I felt like it was just something people said to offer something of hope. I know the people who say such things don’t really think about what it’s like to have cancer, or to be battling cancer while the drugs you are taking are doing their best to kill you. At times it’s _impossible_ to feel possible because the drugs themselves cause you to feel dread or terribly ill. It’s just one of those things – you’ll rarely hear another survivor utter such a flippant comment.

    Thank-you for addressing this topic! Kindly, Samantha Tengelitsch, NHL-survivor 6-months and counting!

    Comment by iamsamiam — December 16, 2007 @ 7:53 pm | Reply

  4. Samantha — It is so helpful to have comments like yours (from someone who has “been there”). In my experience as a critic, there are many more books by “experts” (doctors, therapists etc.) on what THEY think cancer survivors need than there are books by the cancer survivors themselves.

    We need to hear more from survivors. And maybe, as we do hear more, people will become more sensitive. Thanks so much for your openness (which I hope will encourage others to share their experiences here or elsewhere).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 16, 2007 @ 9:09 pm | Reply

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