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A positive attitude (sometimes referred to as "realistic optimism") helps people feel better. Looking at the glass as half full or looking for the silver lining doesn't change reality -- but it does make it easier. It also generally leads to better quality of life and to better medical outcomes.  If for no other reason, the better outcomes are because people are likely to feel empowered to get needed medical care and to comply with treatment and drug regimens.

A positive attitude includes the decision to live with a health condition rather than die of it. It includes the skills to talk yourself out of a down mood and to take a self-affirming view of both negative and positive events.

A positive attitude doesn't mean burying your head in the sand and ignoring reality. That's where the "realistic" part of "realistic optimism" comes in.

Having a positive attitude also doesn't mean adopting a Pollyanna type "I have to stay positive all the time" attitude.  We're all human. We all have our down times and negative thoughts. However, if we observe our thoughts, we can change them. The more we practice, the easier it becomes. If we practice every day, in time a positive attitude becomes a habit.


Experience indicates that a positive attitude can be learned.

Tips to having a positive attitude include the following:

  • Consider the new view about the meaning of life that resulted from your diagnosis. Perhaps there's a meaning that wasn't there before. Or a new path.
  • Let go of the things that don't matter any more.
  • Focus your strength on what you need to do to win your battle.
  • Rather than suppressing negative thoughts, change the subject to a happier, more positive, one.

These subjects, as well as additional tips for helping to stay positive, are contained in the following:


  • Do not fall into the trap of thinking that if your health declines, it is because you did not keep a positive attitude. It may be a blunt way to say it, but: "Shit happens."
  • Behave as if you are going to be here for a while.

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What A Positive Attitude Is, And Is Not

A positive attitude includes the decision to live with a health condition rather than die of it.

A positive attitude recognizes that the old cliche is true: the glass is both half full and half empty all the time. Common wisdom is that keeping the overview helps, particularly if you focus on the half full side.

A positive attitude recognizes that there is no reason to feel shame or blame if your disease progresses no matter how positive you are.

A positive attitude does not mean that you have to try to be superhuman. We're all human.

A positive attitude does not mean to "put-on-a-happy-face" all the time.

  • It's natural to have low periods, including grieving for lost life expectations.
  • There is no reason for guilt if negative thoughts appear. 
    • Recognize them for what they are: human created thoughts. 
    • You can change your thoughts by focusing on a different thought. It gets easier with practice.
  • It is okay to say that what you're going through stinks. 
    • Complaining allows you to vent and work through your feelings. 
    • A positive attitude acknowledges that reality and understands that you likely need time to come to terms with it. 

How To Work On Having A Positive Attitude

Positive emotions can be cultivated.

It takes work, but working on keeping a positive attitude is well worth the effort. For instance: 

  • Revise your thinking about negative events that happen. (this is known as "reframing"). For example:
    • If you forget to take your pills, instead of thinking "I'm stupid," consciously change the throught to "This kind of thing happens when I'm as tired as I am today." 
    • Just as you can interrupt an overtalkative friend, you may be able to interrupt your own negative thoughts and interpretations of the world, and substitute more positive ones. This is easier when you follow the interruption by changing the subject to something pleasurable.
    • Instead of thinking of your disease as a threat - think of it as a challenge.
  • Make a conscious effort to dwell on good recent and long-term memories.
    • Cultivate a sense of gratitude by "counting your blessings" each day.
    • Consider keeping a Gratitude Journal.  
    • Celebrate small victories and achievements.
    • Take the time to really look at the things around you. The world is very rich and is constantly unfolding. For example, watch a bird at a feeder, the way rain drops bead on a window, or a child's joy at eating ice cream.  

Improve the present

  • Make room in your day for genuinely rewarding activities.
  • Get busy.
    • Absorb yourself in activities to the degree you lose your self-consciousness and even awareness of time. If no activities come to mind, think back to what you enjoyed doing years ago. 
    • Volunteer to teach others something you already know.   

Manage negative experiences. 

For instance:

  • Forgive and forget unpleasant experiences. 
    • Let go of resentment. Nelson Mandela said that resentment is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.
    • Avoid anger and hostility to the extent you can.
  • Avoid unnecessary stress to the extent possible.
  • Learn how to handle stress, anxiety and panic attacks. Consider such tools as meditation, deep breathing, visualization, yoga, tai-chi - activities in which you concentrate on the moment while tuning out external factors.
  • Work on changing your thought process.
  • Reach out for social support such as from friends and family, support groups or self help groups
  • If negativity becomes problematic, consider seeking professional help..

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Sayings People Have Found Helpful To Keep A Positive Attitude

Sayings people have found helpful to keep a positive attitude follow. It is worth a taking a few moments to consider each saying before moving on. Perhaps one or more will strike a chord in your own life.
  • Fighting for your life is worth it.
  • Listen to your hope, not your fears.  
  • Float on the sea of uncertainty.  
  • There is no stress in the universe. It's not the events - it's the way we relate to them. It's not easy to change, but we can. Stand on the side and be aware when it happens.
  • We learn the most from the most painful experiences.  
  • Live in gratefulness.  
    • One way to reinforce this attitude is: At the dinner table, ask each family member to state what he or she is thankful for that day. It doesn't have to be a serious thing. It helps pay attention to what is right instead of what may be "wrong". 
  • Live life to the fullest.  
  • "Nothing is impossible" is the way Christopher Reeves summed up what kept him going. He contrasted this to the idea that "Anything is possible" which implies that some things are random and based on luck.
  • Life is a gift. Each day ask what gift you're going to be given to unwrap that day.  (Alternatively: "Every day is a gift. That's why it's called the present.")
  • Portuguese saying: "The man puts the things.God gives the way"  
  • When Captain William Clark looked at the Rocky Mountains for the first time he made a statement which is also applicable to a serious health condition: He said: "... as I have always held it little short of criminality to anticipate evils, I will allow it to be a good comfortable road until I am compelled to believe otherwise."
  • You don't get to choose how you're going to die. Or when. You can only decide how you're going to live now.
  • Attitude is the mind's paintbrush. It can color any situation. 
  • Never ask "why me?" It's a waste of time and energy.   
  • The Serenity Prayer, which follows: God grant me the serenity to:
    • Accept the things I cannot change
    • Courage to change the things I can, and 
    • Wisdom to know the difference. 

How To Stay Positive While Waiting For Test Results.

Waiting for test results can be agonizing. There are time tested ideas that can help you get through this period. For instance:

  • Keep busy.
  • Take advantage of your support systems.
  • If you need help sleeping, get it.
  • Use relaxation techniques.
  • Exercise.

Additional techniques are described in the document in To Learn More.

Relieving Stress Can Help A Positive Attitude

Stess generally accompanies a diagnosis and treatment. In addition to the stress of hearing the diagnosis, don’t be surprised if you have anticipatory stress before treatment starts, or the stress of wondering whether treatment will work, or if a treated disease will return. Feeling stressful can make it difficult to work, pay attention to others, or even eat - much less keep a positive attitude.

People have found the following techniques helpful to relieve stress after a diagnosis:

  • Define your fears. 
    • If you define your fears specifically, you can come up with solutions to each of them. 
    • Solutions help people overcome feeling powerless and overwhelmed by fears.
  • Eat foods that are comfort food for you, even if they're not the healthiest. 
    • Be wise in choosing which comfort foods to eat and how many of them. 
    • Don’t do anything that could a health condition worse.
  • Start doing things to make you feel in control or that help you feel centered. For instance, think of a small project you can start and finish quickly.
  • Keep a “gratitude journal” 

For more information about stress, and techniques for relieving it, see the document in To Learn More.

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Learning Techniques For Coping With Emotions Can Help A Positive Attitude

There are time tested techniques to help with different emotions. They are described in the documents noted in To Learn More.

NOTE: Let your doctor know if your emotions begin to impact your daily life. He or she may be able to help.

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Tips For Staying Positive During Treatment

Following are some tips which have helped other people stay positive during treatment:

  • Focus on the favorable outcome you want. No matter how severe side effect may become during treatment, don't lose sight of the goal.
  • Take favorite photographs of family or friends to your chemotherapy or radiation treatment. Showing photographs to other people getting treatment including the nurses or technicians, can be a powerful reminder of how much you love the people in your life - and how much they love you.
  • Keep a piece of paper by your bed. Before you go to bed at night, write down something you are looking forward to the next day. When you wake up in the morning, look at the paper as a reminder of something good in your life that day.
  • Visit a place that has special memories for you. Special memories can be very comforting in a stressful situation. 
  • Reread a favorite book, rent a movie you like, or listen to your favorite music.  These activities can take your mind far away from the day-to-day concerns and may help remind you there are still many simple pleasures in life. 

NOTE: For additional information about keeping a positive attitude, read the other sections of this article.