Guest Post: I Gave Her Bad Advice

The following post is from my husband, David.

Can a positive attitude affect breast cancer survival? No. It can even hurt.

Since we learned that Dona’s cancer had returned and spread, I have encouraged her to stay positive, think positive, be optimistic. I told her studies have shown that a positive attitude is linked to survival. img_3576

As it turns out, I was wrong. I was giving her bad advice; advice that was not just unhelpful but potentially harmful.

A 9-year study of nearly 1100 cancer patients by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found no relationship between positive outlook and cancer progression and death. At least two additional well designed and implemented studies support these findings. Based on what researchers know now about how cancer starts and grows, there’s no reason to believe that negative emotions can cause cancer or help it grow.


Not always the best plan

And, as I learned, encouraging a cancer sufferer to stay positive can be anti-therapeutic. It can hurt, particularly when the ‘encourager’ links positive outlook to longevity, like I did.  I placed an additional burden on Dona, who has enough on her plate managing fear, side-effects, and me. Although she never said so, I was likely creating guilt and discouragement during the times she was unable to muster up a positive attitude.

But the impulse is natural. We want to believe that we have the will-power to control the outcomes of a serious illnesses.

Moreover, amongst Christians, we link healing to faith. On the extreme end, the ‘health-and-wealth gospel’ purveyors contend that healing can only come from the certainty of our belief in God’s promise of physical well-being. Without knowing, I may have been playing in to this.

Do I believe that God can heal Dona miraculously? Yes, I’m praying He will. Do I believe He must heal if she or I have unwavering faith? I can’t convince myself that is true. God can heal anyone, anytime, with or without my faith. Linking the certainty of my faith directly and solely to healing places too much burden and power on me. But at the same time, I’m reminded that Jesus told us to believe that we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer (Mark 11:22-24; Matthew 21:19-22). I’m asking Jesus to take my mustard seed of faith and use it however He wants. (Matthew 17:20) If this sounds like I’m waffling, I am. Looking at my own weakness, I take comfort in the father who asked Jesus to heal his child who was afflicted with terrible seizures. He told Jesus, “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief.” (Mark 9:21-29)

And then, almost a companion piece to the name-it-and-claim-it Christians is the typical American temperament which ignores mortality and promotes self-determination.

“Fix it, avoid it, or fight it. It is entirely within your control. You can prevail!”
“Cancer won’t win. Just believe you are going to beat it! Be a fighter!”

Dona hates the term, ‘she was a fighter’. She asks, “What’s the corollary for someone who dies of cancer? She was a loser?”

The way forward

Dona is not at death’s door. She has a cancer that is not curable, but it is treatable. She is getting the best treatments for the best possible outcome.

But delusional optimism, that positive thinking will control cancer, is, well,  delusional. Living with hope, however, is essential.  Author and pastor, Tim Keller says,

“The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future.”

Our pastor, Steve Schenk, told us in a recent sermon:

“Despair is believing there is no way forward. Hope, for the sufferer, is believing there is a path forward.”

How does Dona see a way forward in hope with metastatic cancer? She combines deep theology with practical behavior. To date, I have watched her employ over a dozen different techniques in constructing a path ahead. I would like to list them, but Dona nixed that. She reasons that, one, it would make this post over 2000 words and, two, it places undo emphasis on her behavior.  Fair enough.

But I will write that her efforts, habits, and musings promote hope and joy. And experiencing joy where we can find it has been one of our objectives since we started this journey.  Joy, as we Christians know it, has less to do with our circumstances and more to do with a settled assurance that God knows our condition and that nothing: cancer, grief or even death itself, can separate us from his love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So, how can I help Dona? I asked her and she told me,

“Pray for me, read scripture to me, point me to the reason for my existence, remind me that this reality is not the only reality, and have fun with me. And do these again and again and again and again.”

Radical touching

So it turns out according to a colossal amount of research that touching someone is good for health and mood; not just for the “touch-ee” but also for the “touch-er”.  Now, that is hardly earth shattering news. Being touched (APPROPRIATELY) whether in the form of a hug, gentle pat on the arm, holding a hand, back rub is shown to release neurotransmitters that positively affect the immune system, mood, self-esteem, blood pressure, and stress level.  It seems that there is nothing that even the slightest touch on the arm can’t bring about that is not positive.  Of course, there are caveats.  “Know your audience.”  Not all cultures will respond positively to an uninvited touch on the arm.  Nor, do all women necessarily want random men touching them on the arm or anywhere else. But the research is in:  touch activates skin receptors that send signals to the brain to release “feel-good” neurotransmitters and hormones that aid in boosting immune systems.  And, it does not take a scientist to know that touch, given in the right spirit and received in that same spirit, builds a healthy, uplifting psychological connection.

However, there is a “touching” that stuns with its radical compassion and fierceness.  And if we are honest we don’t quite know what to do with it.

The story

In early November of 2013, Vinicio Riva and others traveled by bus to Vatican City, where they attended a morning public audience held by Pope Francis. Vinicio Riva who was in a wheel chair pushed by his aunt was just hoping to see the Pope. Vinicia suffers from a rare skin disorder that has left him severely disfigured with tumors all over his face and body. Neurofibromatosis is not contagious.

The following was reported By CNN World.

“I didn’t think we would be so close to the Pope, but the Swiss Guard kept ushering us forward until we were in a corner in the front row,” recalled his aunt.  “When he came close to us, I thought he would give me his hand. Instead he went straight to Vinicio and embraced him tightly. I thought he wouldn’t give him back to me he held him so tightly.”

(There are pictures of this encounter at the end of this post.)

Vinicio, accustomed to stares of shock and fear, was initially confused by the pontiff’s lack of hesitation. “He didn’t have any fear of my illness,” he said. “He embraced me without speaking … I quivered. I felt a great warmth.”

The entire encounter lasted little over a minute, and soon Vinicio and his aunt were back on the bus; Vinicio in a state of combined shock and joy.

“He was almost not himself,” Lotto said. “He was shaking.’’

“I felt I was returning home ten years younger, as if a load had been lifted,” Vinicio said.

The Huffington Post reported Vinicio as saying, “I’m not contagious, but he [the Pope] didn’t know that.  But he did it, period.  He caressed my whole face and while he was doing it, I felt only love.”

No words were exchanged, just the healing comfort of touch. “I tried to speak to say something but I was unable to,” said Riva in a translation provided by Time. “The emotion was too strong. It lasted a little longer than a minute but it felt as if it were eternity.”

Gospel story

Pope Francis no doubt gets his cue from the gospels.  Another story reported in Matthew, Mark and Luke tells the story of Jesus healing a man “filled with leprosy.”  Jesus broke with centuries-old cleanliness laws by touching, no, “grabbing” a man who fell on his knees before Jesus saying, “If you are willing you can make me clean.”  Jesus, filled with compassion, grabs the man and says, “I am willing”.  The desperate man is cured from one of society’s most dreaded diseases – a disease leading to disfigurement and death but only after a life of misery, pain, isolation, shame and loneliness.

Many through the centuries have also taken their cue from Jesus to radically touch and bless the severely disfigured from dreaded skin diseases and disorders.  St. Francis Assisi, Dr. Paul and Mary Brandt, Mother Theresa and so many others that will never make the radical touch-ers hall of fame on this side of heaven.

I was curious what leprosy might have looked like in first century Palestine.  Surprisingly, Google images revealed something that did not look so different from Riva’s disorder.  Now, here is where it gets a little odd.  When I viewed several images of religious paintings of the encounter of Jesus with the leper they showed something quite different from what would have been the reality.  Jesus is portrayed as “ other worldly” taking his finger and pointing it towards the man as if he was dispelling fairy dust and the man with leprosy looks a little ashen or at most smudgy, something that hot soapy water could fix.  Why was the disease’s disfigurement played down and why is Jesus portrayed as someone who is beyond getting down and dirty with the lowly?  I don’t know but here are two theories.  One, the artist does not want us distracted by the terribleness of the diseased man so that we can keep our gaze on the beautiful ephemeral Jesus, or, two, a painting to be displayed in a church or in the palace of a wealthy benefactor needed to be lovely and stunning to look at showing the magnificence of Christ .  While I understand the reasons it is a disservice to the heart of Christ and to those suffering.

about me

So, would I do what Pope Francis did?  I need to honestly confront my limits and fears and ask sincerely what it means when Christ says, “When you do it to the least of these you are doing it to me.”  Wait a minute, I know what it means.  Compassion has no limits. It comes at a cost.  It certainly did for Christ, our Savior and Healer. I like to think of myself as a touch-er, hugg-er and kisser type of person.  I also like to think of myself as a follower of Christ, too. But, the call to be a radical touch-er?   Me? God help me. I mean it, Holy Spirit help me!