Thursday, March 29, 2007

Do you feel Lucky?

Luck (or the lack thereof)has weighed heavily on my mind this past week, as
I watched Presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth publicly announce the recurrence of her metastasized Breast Cancer. Like every other cancer survivor, I watched the news with trepidation, and a reminder of how misleading the term “cancer survivor” can be.

I became a statistic myself on August 11, 2000 when at the ripe old age of 27 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Approximately 0.03% of breast cancer cases occur before the age of 30. I literally had a greater chance of being struck by lightning. But that's where my personal similarities with Ms. Edwards and her situation end.
My cancer was caught at the earliest stage possible (Stage 0); the best possible prognosis awaited me. My cancer had not spread anywhere, I had no lymph node involvement and my life was never really in danger. That is a far cry from trying to live comfortably with metastasis disease, which will eventually kill you.

The Edwards’ announcement and their subsequent controversial treatment by Katie Couric during an interview for 60 minutes have been chronicled in the press elsewhere, but these events of last week neatly dove tailed with the meeting of my all female book club, where the discussion turned to “The Secret” of surviving cancer.

"The Secret" a best selling book and DVD created by Australian documentary producer and "spiritual entrepreneur" Rhonda Bryne has sold 1.5 million DVD's and maintains its #1 slot on the New York Times Bestselling “Advice and How to Books” list for the past nine weeks. Of course it didn’t take long for Orpah to get involved promoting the book and devoting two episodes to its “power.”

The members of this women’s Book Club that I occasionally attend are mostly white women in their 30's and 40's. They are the dream demographic for this kind of New Age drivel. They read the book (and I attended a screening of the DVD). Many attendees bought the message of this book, hook, line, and sinker. They were eager to absorb the instructions for improving their lives, ready to concentrate on “training” their daily thoughts on only positive events so they could start “attracting” personal health and wealth. One woman featured prominently in “The Secret” DVD claims that her breast cancer was cured within three months based on her “positive thinking” alone. Many others featured in the book and DVD attested to their chronic health problems disappearing or improving from the power of applying The Secret.

This is the kind of message that concerns me. Wishing for wealth, a new car, a larger house, or a new handbag may be superficial or materialistic (and many have complained that “The Secret” is precisely that), but to honestly believe that an illness or chronic disease can be cured from positive thinking alone, or worse - that anyone currently suffering from or diagnosed with a health ailment “just didn’t think positively enough” is downright dangerous. I was shocked at how easily some of my fellow book club members were willing to assign judgement to others based on the principles expoused in The Secret. A common theme reiterated that those who experience problems personally, physically, emotionally or financially are responsible for their difficulties by not adequately embracing or "attracting" positive energy.

The philosophy behind the Secret is disturbingly close to endorsing a "Blame the Victim" mentality. It's slick packaging is a gimmick to sell the public false assurance that as long as you "Believe" you will not only achieve your desires, but you can be spared life's most difficult challenges. It seems to dismiss people who are “unlucky” enough to face misfortune, just when they need the most support.

For example, according to The Secret, “Food doesn’t cause you to gain weight unless you think it can.” So as long as you believe that food cannot make you fat you can eat whatever you want and you won’t gain weight. If this sounds similar to the idea of “create your own reality” --it is.

The next conclusion of this is if you are trying to lose weight, you must not let any negative thought or image enter your head. You should even avoid thinking of or associating with over-weight people because the mere image of a “fat” person will distract your positive thoughts and derail your goal.

So, by that logic John Edwards should avoid his wife entirely least the negative fact that she has terminal cancer “disrupt his ability to channel positive thoughts and attract positive energy” on winning the White House.

Maybe Newt Gingrich was practicing the philosophy of the Secret when he served his cancer-stricken wife with divorce papers in the hospital. Maybe he didn’t want her to interrupt his “positive thoughts” about destroying our government through the Contract with America.

Ms. Edwards is Stage 4 metastasized cancer. There is no Stage 5. Does the fact that it reoccurred so aggressively mean she did not think positively enough? Does she not want to live strongly enough? Are her young children not generating sufficiently positive thoughts of their mother living to see them grow up? Or is she simply unlucky?

Naturally, "The Secret" is wildly popular in the U.S. Americans more than their European counterparts are much more likely to believe in the power of “positive” thinking or “prayer” to solve health problems. Americans are more vulnerable to the snake oil promotion of generating their own wealth and personal circumstances just by magical thinking. It also re-enforces American navel gazing by demanding that our attention be focused exclusively inward at our own desires in order to “attract” our deserved station in life. Most devastatingly "The Secret" simply re-enforces American societal inequities as always being exclusively within the individual's control. Those who do not experience the American dream or share a piece of the prosperity pie simply didn't try hard enough, and therefore deserve their problems.

The current popularity of the Secret is a relevant product of our time. It endorses a philosophy that the Bush administration in particular, seems to have been practicing all along. President Bush has long refused to entertain anything but “positive” thoughts about Iraq, blaming the media for its focus on “only covering negative” things. His underlings and staff are instructed not to give the President any bad news, and yet despite all this intense magic pixie dust “focusing” the reality of Iraq could hardly be worse. Now that White House Press Secretary Tony Snow revealed that his colon cancer has also re-occurred – did he briefly fall off the administration’s rosy “Secret” bandwagon and that explains this unfortunate development in his life?

A positive attitude is a valuable coping method; it can help someone dealing with adversity. But everyone at some point in their life will face adversity in various forms regardless of the amount of positive thinking they generate. A positive attitude alone or only envisioning your current desires cannot guarantee results nor does it explain the misfortune of others.

Many brave souls have faced tragedy in their personal lives with dignity, bravery and emulated a positive attitude and still they succumbed to a tragic event. Occasionally each of us will achieve a long held goal, or narrowly escape a bad situation, or see improvement in our health that no one thought possible. Personally, I had the misfortune of being diagnosed with cancer at a young age, and also reaped the good fortune to have survived it (so far). I consider myself lucky at the moment - nothing more, and nothing less. But bad things happen to good people that cannot be explained, they always have – and they always will.

That is the real Secret of life.