Recently, The Daily Show interviewed David Rakoff, author of Half Empty, a book on pessimism and how it can sometimes be a good way of coping with difficult times. Rakoff talked about his experience when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 22 and suddenly found himself going through eighteen months of intensive treatment, including chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

At the time, he said, he felt weak and terrible but he refused the common claim that the best way to fight disease is to maintain a positive attitude. He took solace in accepting that he was feeling miserable, and that the exhaustion and weakness of his treatment was a tough part of life that he had to endure.

Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book Bright Sided, also thought of her struggle with cancer as a terrible time in her life, and developed some bitterness towards those who, to her, seemed to treat her pain as something that she should be happy about. Her column in the British newspaper The Guardian, from January 2010, argued that there was a “tyranny of positive thinking” in some parts of the cancer community, in which any negative thought or sign of misery was claimed to merely hurt her chance to recover and she felt frustrated that there was no way for her to express her feelings of unhappiness and to have them validated and supported by the community.

These conversations about the role of positive thinking in the cancer experience are common among the adults who participate in our Facing Cancer Together program. A person’s reaction to the challenges of living with cancer can fluctuate day to day and even moment by moment. It’s simply not possible to be positive every step of the way. At Angel Foundation we recognize that with dealing cancer is a traumatic experience and that treatment is a difficult and often painful path. We also know that living with cancer includes experiencing joy, laughter, and it can provide an opportunity to see your priorities more clearly and feel love more deeply. To us, there seems to be a place for both optimism and pessimism when facing cancer.

What do you think? Has being optimistic or pessimistic helped you through your cancer experience?