Realistic Optimism in Cancerville
Helping a Loved One Cope with a Cancer Diagnosis
by William Penzer, PhD
Not knowing what will happen brings out the frightened, confused, and overwhelmed parts of us in all life’s areas, and especially in Cancerville. The philosophy of realistic optimism seeks to offset our automatic pessimistic reactions. It strives to replace hopelessness with hopefulness, within realistic boundaries. Hope is the cornerstone of life. It is the energy that pushes us to set and achieve our goals, which keep us moving forward instead of standing still or going backward. Hope also enables us to encounter difficult realities and believe that we can overcome them. In my opinion, nothing of significance has been accomplished without hope and optimism.
By empowering yourself in an optimistic direction, you will also empower your loved one with cancer. What I have learned from talking to many family members and friends in Cancerville is that their positivism spreads to their loved one and vice versa. Feeling hopeful and optimistic is infectious in a really good way. Hope and optimism spread virally like an interesting YouTube video. You can experience a supportive cycle instead of a vicious one.
Authentic communication resonates better than pretense.
Using Realistic Optimism When Talking with Your Loved One
By promoting optimism and positivism, I am not encouraging family or friends to pretend, blow smoke, or hide concerns from a loved one. Authentic communication resonates better than pretense. Loved ones become annoyed if they are superficially given feedback that doesn’t seem to fit.
Somewhere between total denial and total disclosure, there exists a reasonable, responsible, and honest way to communicate. Saying that “everything will be fine” or that “everyone survives these days” would be taking optimism to a higher level than I am encouraging. At this too-positive extreme, I have met people whose family members told them that they did not have cancer, even after the medical diagnosis had already been confirmed. Remember that your dialogue and your optimism always need to be based in reality; denying that reality will not help the situation.
The Ups and Downs of Cancerville
Reality in Cancerville plays with your mind while it tugs at your heart. Your loved one’s slightest ache or pain can rapidly take everyone down dark and dreary paths. Try to bring a flashlight of hope with you during these emotional jogs. Most of the time, these speed bumps in your loved one’s journey are the equivalent of static on a radio and have no significance whatsoever. Yet, when we are on red alert, every little “noise” becomes an alarm. I do not expect you or your loved one to stay optimistic consistently, but I do encourage you to keep climbing back onto a horse named “Hope” whenever you fall off.
You will have ups and downs in Cancerville; they come with the territory. It is likely you will have your own personal tumbles as your cesspool overflows in response to someone’s comment, a newspaper article, or what-have-you. You can and need to be optimistic and hopeful while facing Cancerville head-on. However, it is important that your optimism be based on the reality of the circumstances.
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Dr. William Penzer is the father of a breast cancer survivor and a licensed psychologist in private practice in Ft. Lauderdale and Boca Raton, FL, specializing in anxiety, panic and phobias, depression, couple/family conflicts, and helping people cope with health related issues.
Excerpted with permission from How to Cope Better When Someone You Love Has Cancer, by William Penzer, PhD, copyright © 2011 by William Penzer, PhD. For more information, visit cancerville.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2012.