If I’m Scared, Will I Make My Cancer Worse?


Dear Belleruth, 

I’ve been diagnosed with Stage Two Breast Cancer.  I am undergoing chemotherapy, which seems to be working, but I get discouraged and scared just the same.  I have been cautioned by my kids to stop worrying or I will make the cancer worse.  Even my nurse tells me how important it is to maintain a positive attitude.  How much damage am I doing to my body by worrying, and how can I stop?  

Melissa M.


Dear Melissa,

We get this question a lot.  Let me repeat what I always say:  you’re getting some well-meaning but bad advice.  Day to day, week to week feelings don’t change the course of cancer.  Putting on a “happy face” will no more make your cancer go away than feeling discouraged, sad, worried or angry will make it worse.  

This is a simplistic notion, popularized in the 80’s when everyone was dazzled by the presumably “new” idea that the mind was connected to the body.  And it is.  And perhaps years of worry and fear might depress the immune system – and that may or may not lead to cancer or some other malady – but there is no need to worry about the normal, up and down mood swings and feelings that come and go inside all of us all day long - especially when chemotherapy will likely be depressing your mood biochemically.   

The truth is, there are no such things as negative thoughts or feelings.  Feelings are just feelings, neither good nor bad.  Denying them is never a good idea, because that’s lying to yourself – never a healthful strategy. We need to know what’s going on inside of us so we know where we stand on the inside and can work with that.  

And it’s a wonderful, healing exercise of self-acceptance to just notice whatever it is we’re feeling, acknowledge it, tip our hat to it and let it stay or change or go – whatever it wants to do.  That’s the essence of the practice of mindfulness.  And it’s why it’s so good at keeping us strong, emotionally resilient and well. 

Besides, denying what we’re feeling takes up energy that could be better used for surviving and thriving. And paradoxically, when we stop arguing with our feelings or making believe they’re not there or that they’re something else, we liberate them and allow them to take a hike. It’s denial that slows down their natural exit, by attaching the heavy baggage of judgments to them. 

Now, that’s not to say that it can’t hurt to be optimistic, focused, motivated and energized enough to do everything you can to improve your health situation… and indeed, you can join support groups, do mindfulness meditation, eat well, get Reiki, therapeutic massage and Healing Touch, and of course listen to guided imagery, to maintain equanimity in the face of stress and worry.  

But the idea of a simple equation – If I feel upbeat, I’ll lick this cancer, and if I’m scared I’ll make it worse – well, that’s just a kid’s magical thinking.  And you need that straight jacket like a hole in the head. 

Why not try Traci Stein’s new Mindfulness Meditations or Self-Compassion meditations; or Julie Lusk’s relaxing Yoga Nidra; or the guided imagery for chemotherapy by Emmett Miller or me, to help you stay on track.  And in the meantime, let yourself feel what you feel.  Whatever it is, it’s just a feeling.  It won’t kill you.

Okay, take care, 

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