The power of positivity

My wife went to a support group for families affected by brain tumours the other week. I’m pretty sure it had the opposite effect from what was intended.

There was a guest speaker there from one of the smaller brain tumour charities.

When my wife got distressed during the session, the speaker took it upon herself to tell everyone at the session how important it was to think positive.

“They say that thinking positive leads to better outcomes for those with cancer,” she reassured the group.

In other words, if you keep a smile on your face about your diagnosis, you’ll live longer.

My wife wasn’t going to let this go without challenge.

“Who’s ‘they’?” she asked. “Who says that, exactly?”

“Oh, there’s loads of evidence,” said the charity representative. And then she proceeded to say that those who’d turned up to the brain tumour support meeting, who were fighting their condition and staying positive, would live longer than those who stayed at home and did nothing.

It seems obvious, but it’s also complete nonsense. It’s unhelpful, incorrect and certainly not what any cancer charity should be telling their service users.

There is no evidence at all that positive thinking can prolong life or improve the chances for those with terminal diseases, brain tumours or cancer.

Those who lock themselves in a dark room and spiral into depression don’t do any worse prognosis-wise than those who become super positive and access every support group going.

It’s easy to assume positive thinking makes a difference – indeed, common sense seems to suggest it’s true – but it’s not backed up by the evidence.

Challenged over email about what she’d said, the charity representative continued to defend her position. She said she wouldn’t “bombard you with scientific papers” on it, but offered a link to a BBC News Online story published 13 years ago.

And right there, half way through the story she had sent, was the line:

“There was no evidence that the final outcome of their disease was improved by positive thinking.”

Simply claiming that thinking positive can slow down cancer, because that’s what you think those with cancer need to hear, is to treat patients like idiots. And it is to peddle false hope.

The inducement to think positive is pernicious in cancer circles. The idea of hope is bandied around as if it’s some kind of magical fairy dust.

Others may have a different position, but I want the organisations that are supposed to be supporting me and my family, as well as the medical professionals looking after me, to offer us truth and honesty.

If I choose to use that truth and honesty to create hope or positivity, then that’s my business. But please don’t presume to do it for me.

Personally, I’ve found a mix of being philosophical and looking on the brighter side of my condition to be helpful for my mental health. But I also think it’s OK to be depressed about what’s happened, as I am from time to time. I’ve bloody well got a right to be.

However helpful positive thinking might be for my mental state, I’m under no illusion that it’ll make the slightest difference to my actual prognosis.

In fact, no more difference than praying, drinking liquidised kale, eating raw garlic, taking coffee enemas or embarking on any other unproven, hope-pedalling miracle cancer diet or ‘cure’.

I can’t help feeling that behind all of this stuff is the implication that if you don’t eat this stuff, if you don’t think positive, if you don’t meditate, or get life-coached, or pray, then you deserve your illness.

It’s your fault, because I’ve offered you something that might just have worked.

I have a brain tumour diagnosis, but the tumour isn’t pressing on my brain to such an extent that I’ve lost my rational faculties. I’m not suddenly willing to try things because, well, you never know it might just work, and it won’t hurt to try it will it, after all, what have you got to lose?

(How about my rationality? My time? My self-respect? My sanity? My dignity?)

I do want to survive. But I’ll only try things that come with scientific evidence behind them, written by people who haven’t bought their PhD on the internet.

So please, do bombard me. I can take it. Bombard me with your scientific papers.

My life is likely to be too short to bother with anything that doesn’t come with a file at least three inches thick with paperwork.


  1. Gideon, I totally agree. It has taken me some years to come to the conclusion that either cancer has your name on it or it doesn’t. And either you are going die from it or you are not. Apart from that, there is not a lot you can do , apart from take the advice of the oncologists , and whatever treatment is offered. But like your wife, I will always challenge anyone who DOESN’T have cancer and who urges those who do to “think positive” or who says how “brave” somebody is. Meaningless twaddle. If positive thinking had the effect that people say it does a hellava lot more people would be alive today.

  2. The positivity peddling you describe here feels like it has one significant benefit: to make the onlooker feel better about themselves, less useless by-stander and more active supporter. I can understand that desire, afterall there have been a few occasions where I have witnessed life events and despite having a compelling urge to act I have held back with the realisation that I cannot actually assist, I don’t have the answers or the skills.
    The scandal here is that this nonsense is proferred by the aparent ‘expert’ charities, rather than amateurs like myself. I can’t help wondering if its a symptom of some charities being run by well-meaning and personally affected supporters, reather than experts in the field? Good on you and Sarah for blowing their cover. Bull-shit spreading wastes time and energy. Oh and it costs money to run.
    Mind you, I do have a lucky coin in my bag if you’d like to sleep with it in your pillow. For a fee, natch.
    Hope to see you soon.
    Fanny x

  3. Well done to you both for challenging these people. Although my son does not have a brain tumour, his other conditions limit his life expectancy and his everyday living. So many people tell me he should think POSITIVE, get out do something, don’t dwell on things. So easy to say this. Not so easy to do and as you have proved there is no evidence to substantiate this. I admire you both for all that you are doing. X

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *