Cancer and The Secret

Cancer and The Secret

by Regina Huelsenbeck
Positive thinking isn't everything; life has a rhythm we must honor for our own mental health.
Filed Under: Healthcare / Medical


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Rhonda Byrne's metaphysical book and DVD, both titled The Secret, have challenged the consciousness of millions worldwide. The film has reportedly helped many people improve their lives by sharing a "secret," the metaphysical law of attraction. Essentially, this law states that what we think and feel will directly determine what we attract and thus experience, putting us each in control of manifesting the reality we wish to create.

Stay Positive?

Two practices described in The Secret include working with a vision board and keeping a gratitude journal. To make a vision board, the individual must become conscious, clear, and specific about what he or she wishes to manifest. Once this is clear, the person creates a collage by drawing, painting, or cutting out magazine pictures that represent these desired realities and then posts them onto a bulletin board. The vision board is kept in a place where the individual will look at it daily. The individual thinks about these realities and actually imagines himself having these things/people/experiences for a few minutes each day. John Assaraf, a successful entrepreneur featured in The Secret, describes his personal experience with vision boards in an interview with Larry King.

A gratitude journal is a daily practice focused on recognizing and consciously experiencing the positive and wonderful things one already has. A common practice is to list five or ten things at the end of each day that you are or were grateful for that day. Theoretically, gratitude, like any positive feeling, attracts more positive feelings, things, thoughts, and experiences. Both of these practices train a person to imagine, thinking about, feel, and focus on the positive things—either those that the person already has or those that they wish to create.

These tools are useful practices. However, I feel that the film overemphasizes the need to be positive.
This shiny-happy-people approach can be problematic for individuals facing loss, depression, and physical illnesses like cancer.
This shiny-happy-people approach can be problematic for individuals facing loss, depression, and physical illnesses like cancer. Is there not a night-side to life? The Secret's segment on cancer, especially, may give an oversimplified message.

In the film The Secret, a breast cancer survivor details how she defeated her cancer without radiation or chemotherapy. She explains that she healed herself with the law of attraction: by thinking positive thoughts, watching funny movies, and telling herself multiple times throughout the day that she was healing. As a cancer survivor, myself, I have to admit that the watching-funny-movies bit put me off; it seemed a bit ridiculous as a cancer treatment. But I got the point: she did whatever she could to keep her spirit up and stress level down. From health psychology and psychoneuroimmunology, we know that stress is counterproductive to healing. But
is it reasonable to believe that we have to be positive at all times in order to heal?
is it reasonable to believe that we have to be positive at all times in order to heal?

Do our thoughts actually create physical reality? If I believe that my life is a product of circumstance, largely outside of my control, and that all that I have created now is all that I will ever create in the future, I will likely mope through each day creating more of the same. We've all seen this in ourselves, friends and clients. If, however, I subscribe to the law of attraction and believe that I can create anything I wish by feeling good and thinking positive thoughts, I will perhaps engage with life more fully, set clear goals and work to create the things I wish to experience. Such a strategy can be life changing, and not too far off from some positive psychology and cognitive-behavioral interventions. I begin to feel hopeful and empowered. I continue practicing positive thinking, writing in my gratitude journal, visualizing what I wish to achieve. By the law of attraction, I begin attracting more and more of these positive thoughts, feelings, health, objects, people, and circumstances into my life. Wow! Things are really looking up!

Downward Spiral

The problem, however, surfaces when I wake up one day and just can't get myself into a positive frame of mind. The pressure mounts, especially if I believe the implied corollary to The Secret's hopeful message: that negative thoughts will send my life promptly into a negative spiral, attracting more and more undesirable things. In an effort to be positive, I may try to deny what I am truly feeling. I begin to feel frustrated, stagnant and confused; soon I am in a tailspin.

The danger of The Secret's message for cancer patients, in particular, is that they might begin to feel that they are now to blame for their illness and that their thoughts are solely responsible for their healing. "I probably caused my cancer by being so negative. I now have to watch all my thoughts and feelings if I want to heal." Cancer patients may begin to feel a need to be positive at all times, since negative thoughts and feelings will only create more of the same, presumably exacerbating the disease. This style of thought is reminiscent of the cancer personality research and Temosho's type C personality, which received criticisms from patients for the same reasons. Cancer patients felt an added sense of guilt and blame on top of fighting for their lives.

Let's take the hypothetical example of Sally, who is in breast cancer treatment and has begun using the law of attraction, visualizing herself as a beautiful, healthy, powerful young woman. Each day, she envisions herself leaving the cancer center for the last time, never to return. She imagines herself inspiring others to make the same positive changes in their lives and has been feeling great! Her CT scans are improving, she hasn't been sick from the chemotherapy, and she has been meeting more positive people and experiencing scenarios that she imagined. She practices her visualizations and focused desires each morning, and spends time being grateful for the wonderful things in her life. Sally has really benefited from her new metaphysical practices.

Today, however, she's feeling very sick; she is tired, angry, worried, and anxious, and she doesn't know why. Sally begins to worry that her negative state of mind is going to make her sicker and ruin everything she has worked for. Sally begins to think, "If I'm not thinking positive thoughts, my cancer is going to grow. Oh my god, I can't feel happy right now; I am going to die."
Soon, she is feeling even worse than she did when she woke up because she feels bad that she is feeling bad!
Soon, she is feeling even worse than she did when she woke up because she feels bad that she is feeling bad! I call this a "mind f*@%," and yes, that's a clinical term. It can spiral down pretty quickly. Sally, without other tools in her toolbox, becomes despondent and confused. She feels powerless, perhaps even more powerless than she felt pre-Secret.

Another metaphysical law not discussed in The Secret is the law of rhythm. This law simply highlights that there are both ups and downs in life.
The tide of the ocean goes out and it comes back in. No one is maniacally happy and positive all the time.
The tide of the ocean goes out and it comes back in. No one is maniacally happy and positive all the time. There is a flow to being human, and that includes times of reverie, reflection and even sadness.

Finding the Rhythm

This catch-22 is often the place where people get stuck. A colleague said to me one day,"Have you heard of The Secret? What a load of crap! I have more people coming into my office upset about this thing. You can't just be positive all the time; you have to work on your issues." Unlike my colleague, a hardcore psychoanalyst, I do not agree that The Secret is a load of crap; I believe the philosophies are empowering and useful. But as a therapist, I agree that it is indeed necessary to welcome times of sadness or reflection wherein we might work on some "issues." It's unreasonable to expect to feel happy, positive and powerful all the time. There is a flow to life: sometimes we are down, other times we are up. There are days when issues are going to grab hold, unpleasant things are going to happen, and we are going to feel bad, sad, mad, and even helpless; we're human. Rather than try to suppress these difficult thoughts and feelings, it is useful to become aware of what they are about, especially if they seem to come up over and over again.

For the most part, our hypothetical cancer patient Sally is on the right track. She should continue to focus on what she truly desires and work to make that a reality. Life is a beautiful creative process, but also sometimes a process of unraveling. Sometimes, like Sally, we are down, and that just is.
These downtimes are a necessary part of life. We must be willing to be with that aspect of our experience, too—maybe even feel grateful for it.
These downtimes are a necessary part of life. We must be willing to be with that aspect of our experience, too—maybe even feel grateful for it. On second thought, gratitude might be pushing it.

We would all like to avoid stress, pain, and sorrow and live forever carefree in the land of positive thoughts and feelings. The reality, however, is that these "negative" elements are pieces of human existence. Navigating bad feeling states with a bit of acceptance and curiosity will make the journey less painful. Training and experience tell me that emotions shift only when they are fully heard. There is no getting around this piece, and that is no secret.


Byrne, R. (2006). The Secret. New York: Atria Books.

Holland, J., & Lewis, S. (2000). The human side of cancer: Living with hope, coping with uncertainty. New York: HarperCollins.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., McGuire, L., Robles, T. F., & Glaser, R. (2002). Psychoneuroimmunology: Psychological influences on immune function and health. Journal of Consulting and Clinical PsychologySpecial Issue: Behavioral medicine and clinical health psychology, 70(3), 537-547.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (1985). Psychosocial enhancement of immunocompetence in a geriatric population. Health Psychology, 4(1), 25-41.

Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (1984). Psychosocial modifiers of immunocompetence in medical students. Psychosomatic medicine, 46(1), 7-14.

Simonton, C. O., Simonton, S., & Creighton, J. L. (1978). Getting well again. New York: Bantam Books.

Temoshok, & Dreher (1992) The type C connection: The behavioral links to cancer and your health. New York: Random.

Copyright © 2009 All rights reserved.
Regina Huelsenbeck Regina Huelsenbeck is Co-Chair of the mindfulness task force group in the San Diego Psychological Association and currently works at the UCSD Outpatient Psychiatry Clinic. She completed her doctoral research on the experience of living with cancer and additionally authored a chapter on this topic for the book Hope Begins in the Dark, created by award-winning NEWSWEEK journalist, Jamie Reno. She maintains a private practice supervised by Carrie Jaffe, PhD focused on mindfulness practices, cancer survivorship issues, coping with terminal and chronic illness, overcoming trauma, loss, depression, and creating life meaning., Dr. Huelsenbeck is also a cancer survivor herself, an avid blogger—, and professional speaker. For more information please visit Dr. Huelsenbeck's website at