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  • Writer's pictureGrief Specialists

The Complexity of Positivity and "Beating Cancer" for Those Bereaved by Cancer

The narrative of staying positive can have unintended negative effects

Constant positivity

The message of "beating cancer" and maintaining positivity, while well-intentioned, can be particularly challenging for those bereaved by cancer for several reasons. Cancer is often framed as a battle to be won or lost, with phrases like "beating cancer" and an emphasis on positivity becoming a social norm.

While these messages can be powerful and encouraging for many, they can also present significant challenges for those who have lost loved ones to the disease. Here’s why the narrative of overcoming cancer and the push for constant positivity can be tough for the bereaved.

Feelings of Guilt and Failure

One of the most profound impacts of the "beating cancer" message is the potential to evoke feelings of guilt and failure among those who have lost someone to cancer. The implication that cancer is a battle suggests that the outcome is influenced by the patient’s effort and positivity.

When a loved one dies, this can leave the bereaved feeling that their loved one didn’t "fight hard enough" or that they themselves failed in some way to support them adequately. This notion of failure can be emotionally devastating, adding a layer of guilt to the already complex process of grief.

Unrealistic Expectations

The focus on positivity often brings with it an expectation to remain hopeful and upbeat, even in the face of a terminal diagnosis or during the gruelling phases of treatment. This pressure can be overwhelming for patients and their families, making it difficult to authentically express their fears, sadness, and despair.

Moreover, messages that stress a positive outlook can create false hope, which may make the acceptance of a grim prognosis and the eventual passing of a loved one even harder to bear.

Oversimplification of the Cancer Experience

Cancer is a multifaceted disease, and the experiences of those who go through it are deeply personal and varied. Simplifying cancer to a battle that can be won or lost overlooks the medical complexities and the individual circumstances that significantly influence outcomes.

Emphasising positivity can sometimes overshadow these important factors, making it seem as though mental attitude is the sole determinant of survival, which is far from the truth.

Impact on the Grieving Process

For those grieving the loss of a loved one, the insistence on positivity can feel invalidating. Grieving individuals may feel that their profound loss and the spectrum of emotions they are experiencing are not fully recognised or respected. Being told to stay positive during a time of immense sorrow can add to their burden, making them feel even more isolated.

This isolation can hinder the grieving process, as the bereaved might struggle to find spaces where they can openly share their pain and memories without the pressure to put on a brave face.

Emotional Toll

The unwelcome and widespread narrative of "beating cancer" can also lead to feelings of resentment and anger among the bereaved. Encountering stories of survival and triumph can exacerbate their sadness, serving as a constant reminder of their loss. They might feel overlooked by a society that celebrates survivors but does not equally acknowledge the realities of those who have died from cancer and the families they leave behind.

Stigmatisation and Victim Blaming

Framing cancer survival as a matter of fighting hard and staying positive can inadvertently stigmatise those who die from the disease. It suggests that they didn’t do enough, which can lead to subtle forms of victim blaming.

This stigmatisation can be deeply hurtful, making the bereaved feel that their loved one’s death was somehow their own fault, rather than a tragic outcome of an uncontrollable illness.

A Call for Balanced Narratives

While messages of hope and positivity can be beneficial for many, it’s crucial to balance these narratives with a realistic understanding of cancer’s complexities. Acknowledging the full spectrum of experiences, including the harsh realities of loss and bereavement, is essential.

By doing so, we can provide more inclusive support that validates the experiences of all affected by cancer, including those who have lost loved ones.

The narratives of "beating cancer" and maintaining positivity, though well-meaning, can have unintended negative effects on those bereaved by cancer. It’s important to have more realistic conversations around cancer that respects the diverse realities of all those impacted by this devastating disease.

Many of our grief specialists work with people bereaved by cancer. Find out who and how they can support you, go to our Grief Specialists directory here.


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