Friday, July 10, 2015

Pixar, Cancer, and Staying Positive

I went to see my (non-cancer) doctor this morning for a quick look at my lungs. My family and I went to Montreal, Canada last week for a few days to see some of their wonderful Jazz Festival and magnificent churches, among other sites (and to eat smoked meat and poutine, among other foods). I came back with a bag of Montreal bagels and a chest cold, or allergies, or something. It's gotten a little worse over the last week. The doctor says it's bronchitis, and told me to take something to loosen the congestion and call hr Monday if it's worse. I'm sure I'll be fine in a couple of days.

Of course, I couldn't help but flash back 8 years, to the summer of 2007. Around this time, early July,  I was on my second round of bronchitis. It eventually turned to pneumonia, and then more breathing problems in the fall, which led to a scan that showed a swollen node in my chest, and then another one popped up a couple of months later near my hip, and then a biopsy, and then a diagnosis....

It's funny how, even after seven and a half years, just a small little thing like a cough that wakes you up in the middle of the night can bring back a whole flood of memories. Like I told my new oncologist a couple of months ago, Follicular Lymphoma is an emotional disease as much as a physical one -- maybe even more of an emotional disease. For a lot of us, we show only the smallest physical signs of lymphoma. It's the emotions -- sadness, fear, anxiety, anger -- that are so much more visible.


As I was waiting in the doctor's office this morning (why is it that when I get there 15 minutes early, I'm still called in 20 minutes late?), I flipped through a copy of Entertainment Weekly, my favorite trashy doctor's office magazine. It was maybe a month old, and it had a review of the new Pixar movie Inside/Out.

If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. It's about an 11 year old girl named Riley whose family moves to a new city. We see Riley's reactions to her new life through the five emotions that exist in her brain -- Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. I won't say more than that, though it's easy to find trailers online if you want them.

Now, my favorite Pixar movie has to be Up. The opening scene (again, I won't say much) made me cry for a week. And Dug the Dog made me laugh for about the same time (and made me rush home to hug my own dog). As a story, Up just can't be beat. It's one of my favorite movies of all time.

But as far as a cartoon that will make you think as it makes you feel? Inside/Out is as good as it gets.

Again, I don't want to give too much away, but I'll quote from that EW review: "Sadness...almost steals the show."

As we walked out of the theater, my wife said, "You need a little sadness. It's a necessary thing because it leads to Joy."

And that's a message that we need to hear, as cancer patients.

There's a essay online by the psychologist Barbara Held called "Combating the Tyranny of Positive Attitude." She reminds us that we are often told how important it is to be positive, especially in the face of illness -- a positive attitude is essential to our recovery! And then we we are not positive, we get the double whammy of feeling bad, and then feeling guilty that we feel bad. (The excellent writer Barbara Ehrenreich discusses this in a more cancer-related essay called "Smile! You've Got Cancer!")

A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She seems to be doing well. But after she told me of the diagnosis, and we traded a few emails, I made sure to give her what I think is the best advice I have received as a cancer patient, very much in line with Barbara Held's: it's OK to have a bad day. Sometimes we suffer from the tyranny of positive attitude -- people telling us that staying positive is an important, even necessary part of our treatment. And we feel that pressure to be positive all the time. But you know what? Sometimes we have bad days. Things get overwhelming, and the only thing we want to do it sit on the couch and eat ice cream for lunch and watch bad television. And I say that's OK. We are cancer patients. We are entitled to bad days (and to ice cream for lunch).

And that's what Inside/Out is telling us. Sadness is OK. We all experience it, and it can lead to Joy.

So, for me, Inside/Out might be the perfect cancer movie. There's no actual cancer involved, but it helps you do the things that a cancer patient is supposed to do.

I've written several times about a famous and inspiring speech by the basketball coach Jim Valvano, who was receiving an award for courage as he was dying of cancer. in the speech, Valvano says this:

When people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it's the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives.
Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day.
Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought.
Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy.
But think about it. If you laugh, you think and you cry, that's a full day. That's a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you're going to have something special.

Inside/Out will give you all three of those things in a couple of hours. I'm telling you -- the perfect movie for a cancer patient.

Don't shy away from the Sadness. You need that to get the the Joy.


Virginia Miller said...

Thank you, Bob! I'm going to see the movie. You tell it like it is with regard to living life!!!

Maureen said...


I totally agree about the tyranny of positive thinking. Sadness can be a beautiful thing.

I four days into a diagnosis of FL and wanted to ask you about online support groups that you have found helpful. I need to connect with others who have been down this road.

Lymphomaniac said...

I'm so sorry that you received the news. But you seem like you're doing OK, with such a new diagnosis.
I talk a lot about the support group I have been involved with. It's from Web Magic, and you can find it at (then click on Non-Hodgkins Peer Support and News). They were wonderful source of information and support for me, especially early on. I don't post very often any more, but I still check in every day to see how everyone is doing.
I hope the good people there bring you as much comfort as they brought to me.
Good luck. And please keep us updated.