What a great review of Positive in this Saturday’s Courier-Mail … it’s really gratifying when you feel that a reader really ‘gets’ what you are trying to achieve in your book.

Courier Mail review of Positive

Courier Mail review of Positive

Some of the people I interviewed for Positive were grimly, passionately determined not to let cancer get the better of them, and it was that “take no prisoners” attitude I wanted to capture. I never wanted the book to be a sentimental sermon about looking on the bright side. Bernadette Vella was fourteen weeks pregnant with her second child when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. If anyone needed to be relentlessly stubborn in fighting disease, it was her.

“I don’t like to lose – it is not something I do often. The cancer could control my body and I had no choice about that, but it could not control my mind and spirit. I had a lot of anger (apparently that’s a normal reaction to cancer) and I directed all of my anger and negative thoughts at beating the cancer. Physically I could only fight it as much as my weakened body would allow. But mentally it surely picked the wrong person to fight with. If I was going to die, then I was going to go down fighting.

“There were definitely moments of feeling sad and sorry for myself, but they were truly few and far between. I always felt that if I felt down then the cancer was getting into my emotions, and it was an unwelcome visitor there … I also felt like I was not just doing it for myself and my family, but I was doing it for all the other women out there who get diagnosed with cancer while they are pregnant. I knew that if I could survive and carry my daughter to as close to term as possible, and if she came out with no complications, then I could give others hope that a cancer diagnosis while pregnant doesn’t mean the end of life for either the mother or the child.

Bernadette Vella (from Sally Collings, Positive, published by HarperCollinsPublishers Australia in 2009)

Dymocks Brisbane city store loves Positive!

Dymocks Brisbane city store loves Positive!

One of the most thought-provoking discussions in my book, Positive, is with Ian Gawler, a pioneer of mind-body medicine in Australia. We talked about the inclination in Western culture to deny death, and Ian commented:

“I do not think that we are well supported in society to include death in day to day life. Society is much more geared up to protect us from death with all sorts of things, like the preoccupation with entertainment and being busy.

“There is also an aversion to the painful job of working out how you place death in your life. How do you live knowing everybody you are related to, or in a relationship with, will die sometime? And how do you engage with people in an open and intimate way, without holding back, when you know they are going to die? We will all die one day; but we do not know when. You see a lot of parents who consider this reality with their children for a moment and just freak out and say, ‘I would rather not think about it.’ It is a very logical response; the problem is that if something does happen, most people are really unprepared for it.

“There is this notion that to be positive you have to be ‘up’ all the time, and that to talk about death is being negative. It is actually more positive to be authentic to your emotions and to face the real threat that something like cancer can pose. It is more useful for most people to say, ‘if I was to die and have a painful experience, that would be really difficult.’ There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that. In fact, in doing so it can begin a process that can free you from some of the fear and anxiety, then you can be more capable to do what it takes to survive or get well.”

This puts quite a different perspective on “positive thinking” – more than simple optimism, it describes the way we choose to live our lives – with hope and passion, or in resignation and regret.

“The whole ‘positive’ thing from a psychiatrist’s point of view is a complicated issue. One of the things patients say to me during and after their treatment is it’s a balance of trying to reconcile what’s happened, deal with the fear it could come back but not stay locked in that state. Most people I see have at some level worried they would die, but they are almost universally pressured by their family and friends not to go there. Being positive is something that is highly valued in our society and I don’t think that is always a good thing. When it is something that comes from the person themselves, that is different, but when it is imposed externally – I have a real problem with that. I call it the tyranny of positive thinking.”
Dr Jane Turner, psychiatrist from the University of Queensland (from Positive by Sally Collings, HarperCollinsPublishers Australia 2009)

When I started researching Positive, I focused on finding people who had had some kind of good experience or outcome (emotional, spiritual, physical, psychological) as a result of cancer. It was refreshing in a way to talk with psychiatrist Jane Turner, who has a very clear-eyed understanding of why people might see positives in a circumstance like that. I agree that sometimes we run fast so death doesn’t catch us, or keep a smile on our face because we don’t want to let the tears out. At the same time, I do believe there can be an authentic experience of self-discovery and revelation that follows the profound shock of a cancer diagnosis.