Barbara Ehrenreich had breast cancer, and ugly and frightening as that disease is, she found something else that was almost as horrible: the ‘positive thinking’ approach to health care. People are stigmatized if they fail to regard their illness as anything other than an uplifting, positive life experience, an opportunity to examine their lives and identify what is most important to them…and also, most disturbingly, if they fail to appreciate that the attitude that they bring to the problem will determine whether they live or die. It’s the Oprah-zation of medicine.
In the most extreme characterisation, breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance – it is a “gift”, deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude. One survivor writes in her book The Gift Of Cancer: A Call To Awakening that “cancer is your ticket to your real life. Cancer is your passport to the life you were truly meant to live.” And if that is not enough to make you want to go out and get an injection of live cancer cells, she insists, “Cancer will lead you to God. Let me say that again. Cancer is your connection to the Divine.”
Well, doesn’t that just make you all want to rush out and take a bath in some carcinogens? We healthy people are missing out on enlightenment!
We’re also missing out on an opportunity to be bilked. That’s what this is really all about: con artists who can’t really do anything to fight the cancer can at least tell you to smile, be cheerful, pray, buy my super-duper vitamin supplements, and pay the cashier my consulting fees on the way out … and if it doesn’t work, it’s not my fault. You’ve got a disease that’s ripping through your guts and causing pain, yet if you feel a moment’s doubt or worry, you’ve invalidated the charlatan’s prescription, and your relapse is all your fault.
This is where the feel-good phonies prosper. Look at how Deepak Chopra treats his ‘patients’.
Besides, it takes effort to maintain the upbeat demeanor expected by others – effort that can no longer be justified as a contribution to long-term survival. Consider the woman who wrote to Deepak Chopra that her breast cancer had spread to the bones and lungs: “Even though I follow the treatments, have come a long way in unburdening myself of toxic feelings, have forgiven everyone, changed my lifestyle to include meditation, prayer, proper diet, exercise, and supplements, the cancer keeps coming back. Am I missing a lesson here that it keeps reoccurring? I am positive I am going to beat it, yet it does get harder with each diagnosis to keep a positive attitude.”
Chopra’s response: “As far as I can tell, you are doing all the right things to recover. You just have to continue doing them until the cancer is gone for good. I know it is discouraging to make great progress only to have it come back again, but sometimes cancer is simply very pernicious and requires the utmost diligence and persistence to eventually overcome it.”
The poor woman has a metastisizing cancer that has spread to her bones and lungs, and Chopra is telling her that diet, prayer, and not thinking ‘toxic’ thoughts will lead to a cure! I don’t know how that quack has avoided arrest.
I much prefer the honesty of Ehrenreich (I also like the connotations of her name). This is the truth:
Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual. What it gave me, if you want to call this a “gift”, was a very personal, agonising encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before – one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune and blame only ourselves for our fate.