Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Glass Half Full

With so much death and destruction in the world, I look to find any glimmer of hope in the news of the day.

I found it last week in the New York Times where an article discussed a recent study which reported a 20% rise in cancer survivors in the United States. I, for one, was thrilled. More people surviving cancer is a good thing, right?

I thought so until I posted this new, thrilling fact on my Facebook account and found that at least one person didn’t think it was very positive. Instead, that person wondered if that statistic was inflated because more people are being diagnosed with cancer. This person, a “friend,” went on to wonder if this statistic was even legitimate. “What about all the people who get diagnosed every day?” he wondered.

I was dumbfounded, as were several of my other Facebook friends. Several of them immediately commented, taking this person to task for 1) his insensitivity and 2) his glass-half-empty view of the world. He recanted, obviously chastened, and removed the offending comment from my post. He didn’t know that I was a cancer survivor, not that that really mattered in responding to my update.

To me, there was no way you could read the NY Times piece and see any downside. If there are more diagnoses, it still means that there are more survivors. And in my opinion, that can only be positive.

It just brings me back to that eternal question of just how optimistic can we be? Should we be? There is a lot of talk these days about optimism, the so-called “happiness” gene, one’s emotional outlook, all of the above and their relationship to physical health. Maybe my Facebook friend was having a bad day, or maybe he just isn’t optimistic. Maybe he knows someone who has just been diagnosed and isn’t seeing any value to a study. Hard to tell. But I always find it interesting to see how two people can take the same information or circumstance and look at it in an entirely different way. It makes me wonder: is it the way we’re wired or a choice we make?

I don’t think we’ll ever know for certain, but the latest issue of Oprah magazine does tackle the question of how beneficial positive thinking actually is, citing a study that says that cancer patients who explored their feelings about their illness and talked about it with others had to schedule fewer visits to their doctor. It goes on to say that there are a few things within our control like the quality of our diet and our commitment to exercise, but also our level of optimism. So it is something we can control and something we can unleash when necessary, like when we’re faced with a dire diagnosis and few options.

There are a few secrets to living an optimistic life including expressing yourself, meditating, seeking help if necessary, using your friends to help you, and looking on the bright side. The idea though, expressed simply, is that it is within our power to choose an optimistic mind-set and that we can practice to train ourselves to see things in a positive fashion rather than going negative at the outset.

Sure, we all fall victim to the doubts and the negativity, but I find it interesting that by doing a few simple things, like naming your adversity and identifying the consequences, to name a few, we can train ourselves to look at the bright side.

If you read the Stiletto Gang with any regularity—and because I’m a positive thinker, I’m going to assume that you do!—you know that optimism and positive thinking are two things that I think about and write about a lot. As a result, I was interested to take the quiz in the magazine which would score my level of optimism. I was happy to find that from my perspective,” things usually work out.” I am not “highly aware of potential disappointments,” nor do I “plan for the worst.” Optimism and its effect on health, according to the article is now a “scientific certainty” so in a world gone mad, we have the power to control how we feel and to focus on what’s good despite being constantly bombarded with the notion that the worst is yet to come.

With all that is going on in the world, though, how do you, our Stiletto faithful, keep a positive outlook?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Okay, now I'm depressed! Only one in five people survives cancer? I really thought the number was much higher and the 20% increase in survivorship augmented a much brighter number. My real problem with all these statistics is that all cancer cases are so different. When I was researching my type of breast cancer to see what the facts were, I found a way high (like 90%) survivor rate. I know it's not the same for ever type of breast cancer much less for every type of other cancer out there. So I kind of feel for the guy on your FB page, Mags, because all these reports and statistics get so confusing. Sometimes it's hard to tell what it all means. If 2 of 3 men and 1 of 3 women will get cancer in their lifetimes (and those numbers I hear quoted a lot), I would imagine that means a good chunk of us hang in there. I meet fellow survivors all the time (at book events, in the drug store, through my web site), so I know there are plenty. Right now, there are at least four survivors in my own family. So, I think, more than reports and statistics, that's what makes me look on the bright side.

  2. Susan, I phrased that statistic incorrectly and have changed the paragraph accordingly. I didn't mean to say that "only 1 in 5 survive" rather that it was an increase. My bad. You know I stink at math. Statistics? Get outta my way! I will really foul things up. Mea culpa. Maggie

  3. Oh, thanks for the fix! Now I feel better. I don't like numbers either. They never seem to line up in my checkbook the way they should, for one thing. ;-)

  4. I keep a positive outlook by believing in the future and feeling good about myself.

  5. I have a piece of paper on the wall above my monitor that reads:

    The pessimist may be proved right in the long run but the optimist has a better time on the trip.