Saturday, February 12, 2011

Remaining Positive in the Face of Illness - By Samantha Harris

Over and over again, studies have shown that maintaining an attitude of optimism has positive effects on health. Though people often disagree on exactly how this works – perhaps there is a spiritual aspect to it, or perhaps it is a matter of the physical state of the brain – there is undeniable evidence that people with positive attitudes tend to live longer and healthier lives. It is perhaps not easy, but certainly easier, to remain positive when your overall health is good. However, a good outlook on life may prove most beneficial of all when one is diagnosed with a chronic or fatal illness.

Firstly, it is important to distinguish between a chronic illness, which can be managed for years, and a terminal illness, which leads to death, usually in a short amount of time. Neither type can be cured, but someone with, say, diabetes might live for decades by taking insulin every day, whereas someone with pancreatic cancer may die in a few months despite receiving the best treatment. Despite the fact that these are two very different situations, the coping skills and techniques to deal with them often overlap. While an optimistic outlook will not cure either kind of illness, it will almost certainly improve the patient’s quality of life, whether that life extends for years or weeks.

There are many resources for people dealing with chronic or fatal illnesses – even a simple Google search will bring up dozens of options. Looking at these resources, certain themes appear again and again. The first is the idea of staying connected to those around you, preventing isolation. Some will talk about a “network of support,” whether it includes family, friends, a disease-specific support group, a counselor, or all of the above.

It is important to remember that everyone deals with illness differently, and thus there is no single approach to maintaining positivity that will work for everyone. Some people may gain hope from reading everything they can find about their illness in order to prepare themselves, and others find it easier to avoid overloading themselves with information and instead deal with each day as it comes. Neither approach is wrong.

Even the most fatal cancers are not always a death sentence. About half of patients with mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer of the lining of the chest or abdomen, die within eight months of diagnosis. However, scientist and author Stephen Jay Gould lived with mesothelioma symptoms for 20 years before succumbing to a different type of cancer altogether. He famously penned an article for Discover magazine called “The Median Isn’t the Message,” referring to the median life span for mesothelioma patients and describing how such statistical averages can be misleading, failing to encompass the reality of variation. Instead of thinking he would die within eight months, he reviewed the literature on the disease and realized his otherwise good health and positive outlook would likely put him in the 50% of patients who lived longer.

Of course, it is difficult to straddle the line between a healthy positive attitude and false hope – Gould is a statistical outlier among those with mesothelioma symptoms, and the vast majority of people diagnosed with the disease will not live nearly as long. However, accepting the possibility of death does not have to involve refusing to fight it. In his article, Gould says “I find nothing reproachable in those who rage mightily against the dying of the light.” “Rage,” in this sense, does not have to equate to debilitating anger – it can refer metaphorically to fighting the effects of a chronic or fatal illness by refusing to allow it to eliminate the joy and hope from your life.

Hyper Links
positive effects on health:

mesothelioma symptoms:

The Median Isn’t the Message :

Inspirational Video - SSCBS