When good intentions hurt: Exploring Toxic positivity and conversations about cancer

5 minute read time.
When good intentions hurt: Exploring Toxic positivity and conversations about cancer

While positive affirmations can be uplifting, is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Is ‘always positive’ always helpful? In this blog, we’ll be exploring a concept known as ‘toxic positivity’, and how it affects those facing cancer. We'll also offer guidance on how to engage in conversations about cancer.

What is toxic positivity?

When talking about difficult or upsetting emotions, a natural reaction might be to try and counter those feelings with overly positive responses. Although the intention is to provide comfort, positivity can become toxic when it dismisses valid struggles and negative emotions. Emotions are complex, so we need to embrace the full spectrum of feelings, both positive and negative feelings.

Toxic positivity can be emotionally draining. The pressure to have a positive attitude all the time, can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and isolation when negative emotions arise. We encourage members to express their emotions authentically and offer support without judgement.

Experiences of toxic positivity

Just over a month ago, a Community member wrote about their experience dealing with toxic positivity. Their partner had recently been diagnosed and they had just started telling loved ones.

After sharing their experience, this member asked the forum if anyone else had experienced toxic positivity and what they had done about it.  This allowed for a healthy discussion to take place, allowing members to share openly about their experiences.

“I am getting that at the moment, people telling me, 'But you look so well!’ Or ‘you will get through it as you are such a positive person’”

“I am still experiencing some toxic positivity almost 5 years on from my original diagnosis.”

“I just wish people would think before they speak and realise you have gone through a life-changing experience.”

“Ahead of me starting chemo, a friend passed on the advice of a friend of hers who has been treated for cancer. The advice was that you don’t have to be positive all the time - the drugs will work anyway. I think I’ll be taking that on board”

Click here if you would like to read the full discussion.

Supporting each other through ups and downs

Authenticity and vulnerability are cherished within our Community. By sharing our true feelings and challenges, we cultivate an environment where members can feel heard and understood. Together, we learn that it’s okay to have difficult days and that seeking support during these times is a sign of strength, not weakness. By talking honestly with others, we can improve our mental health and general well-being.

Have you experienced a form of toxic positivity? If so, you may want to pause reading for now and share some of your story with us in the comments below.

Positive thinking

Toxic positivity can be tough to deal with, for both caregivers and those living with cancer. In addressing this, we are not dismissing having a positive mindset, there is a balance that can be found. The key is being real with how you are feeling each day and considering what kind of support you may need.

In reply to the question about toxic positivity, one of our Community champions made some good points and offered the following advice.

“You will find that the ‘positivity’ language will keep coming along so you just have to have selective hearing. But at other times when you know people well and know that you can be open, do try to educate them in a supportive way…

… As for the positive mindset, there is a place for it. My Respiratory Consultant (I also have asbestosis) is a very good family friend and he maintains that of all the patients he sees those who are glass-half-full people do actually add to their ability to get through their treatment and come out the other end in a better place than those who don’t have that mindset - it’s not scientifically proven, just his observation from many years dealing with cancer patients.” 
Community member, Emotional support forum, Toxic positivity thread

Talking to someone who has cancer

How could you reshape your conversations to offer empathy and understanding to those living with cancer? When talking with someone who is navigating the challenges of cancer, it's important to approach the conversation with empathy. Here are a few things you can keep in mind when talking to someone living with cancer:

  • Do not feel you need to have answers. Listening can be enough. Even if it goes quiet for a time, try not to be afraid of the silence or feel you have to fill it.
  • Try to listen instead of thinking about what you are going to say next. When the person with cancer is talking, pay attention to what they are saying.
  • Try not to say that everything will be fine or encourage them to be positive. It can sound as if you are not listening to their worries. It is better to let people speak honestly about their feelings.
  • It may not be helpful to tell the person about other people’s stories. You may have heard about other people’s experiences with cancer. Cancer is different for everyone. They will get the information they need from their healthcare team.
  • Showing empathy is helpful. If they start to cry as they talk, you could say something like, ‘I can see how upsetting that is for you’. If you are close to them, you could simply sit with them and hold their hand.

For more advice and information, you can follow the links below.

Talking about your cancer diagnosis

It can be tricky talking to people about your cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. How people react when you tell them about the cancer may depend on different things. Many people have no experience talking to or supporting someone with cancer.

Follow the links below for more information and practical tips:

Who can you talk to?

Think about who you usually talk with about important issues or difficult problems. This is probably the best person to talk to. This may be your partner, your closest friend, your eldest child, another family member, a work colleague, a counsellor or a religious leader. It may be somebody who is going through or has been through a similar experience.

Sometimes it is easier to talk with someone you do not know. You may feel less pressure to act a certain way. You may also feel safe knowing that they will not share the conversation with your friends or family.

If you feel this way, you could:

  • Giving the news to close family is really difficult. Not just the initial diagnosis but about on going treatment and findings. I am guilty of trying to soften the blow, so some of the toxic positivity comes from me. I find it difficult to say how I really feel both physically and mentally and my husband tells me I'm too upbeat. Of course he sees all my highs and lows. Keeping a balance is difficult but I am trying. Going for a short break with my daughter soon, so she will see me warts and all, which can only be a good thing in the long run.

  • Hi Unawatuna,

    Thank you for leaving a comment here. That is a very good point, it is an ongoing story through treatment and further scans and giving bad news to loved ones is very tough.

    Its very natural to struggle to be completely honest with our feelings at times. Its a tough balance to find, being real but also trying to have a healthy dose of positivity. A few years ago I was told, "its okay not to be okay". That has stuck with me ever since and I often have to remind myself of that. It's almost like you have to give myself permission to feel the way I feel. On some days, when we are feeling very low, we just have to be honest with ourselves and others, and share how we are doing with people or spaces that we trust.

    Its great that you have your husband with you as a source of ongoing support. Someone who can be with you through the highs and lows. 

    Enjoy the break with your daughter and take care, Unawatuna.

    Best wishes,

  • It is hard, keeping the mask on, and i find that is what i do, though  behind closed doors, i have myt moments, an fill sorry for myself, fed up  trying to dare i say it, stay alive, but yes i am still here, and very gratefu.l

  • Wow I’m so happy to read this is a thing. I try really hard to be positive and occasionally feel angry or upset. I can’t believe the number of times I’ve been told I’ll be okay because I’m so positive, or they know someone who was given 2 years to live and are still here 18 years later! I was told very recently that if I took no further treatment I had 6-12 months left. Needless to say I told my oncologist that was not an option. I may have 2 years, but who really knows for sure? I’ve tried to adopt the attitude that if I can’t change a situation I can change the way I react. I borrowed it from a post on Facebook! I’m living my life as fully as possible while I’m fit and healthy in spite of the cancer.

  • I have banned anyone from telling me I am 'brave'. I hate that! What choice do we really have? We cope with whatever the cancer may throw at us, and we can't anticipate what that might be.