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Realistic Optimism in Cancerville

Helping a Loved One Cope with a Cancer Diagnosis

by William Penzer, PhD

About Coping

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.

Author of Article photo

Dr. William Penzer

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.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2012.