What are cancer muggles and positivity pushers, and why are they obsessed with “the bright side” of my dark situation?

Posted: February 15, 2022







Have you ever had someone approach your cancer diagnosis like a dollar-store greeting card? They may utter phrases like “Just look up and be positive,” “These lavender essential oils from my MLM can cure your cancer,” and “Hair grows back!” while we literally try to bite our tongue. Or maybe they had a health breakthrough with a Keto diet, and *swear* it will cure you, too. Thanks, but no thanks, Susan. 

We call these people “cancer muggles” or “positivity pushers,” and they often cause more harm than good.  

(From our bud @thecancerpatient)

WTF is a “cancer muggle,” and how can you deal with them?

You’ve heard “Keep a positive mindset” a billion times. But while there is some truth to that advice, empty words from cancer muggles and positivity pushers who don’t get it make it hard to do so. 

Urban Dictionary defines cancer muggle as: “People who haven’t had cancer but like to give shit advice to us as if they have a clue,” or “A person that thinks they know anything and everything about cancer.” 

BTW, “muggle” is a term borrowed from Harry Potter, referring to humans who aren’t part of the wizarding world. So think of these people as the “outsiders” of cancer magic. We know a “Brackium Emendo!” won’t fix you right up this time.

Toxic positivity is their game, but it’s anything but positive. Sometimes we have to tune them out to protect our peace, bud. 

We’ve heard this phrase a lot lately, especially in light of hardships with the pandemic (*cough* that cringe celeb rendition of Imagine). Toxic positivity refers to forced optimism and an intrinsic desire to shut down negative emotions as soon as they surface. 

“Sometimes, positive thoughts and words of encouragement are not what’s needed at the moment,” writes med student and breast cancer thriver Kendahl Servino. “In fact, sometimes positivity may be the last thing a cancer patient needs.” 

(From @crazyheadcomics)

The appearance of positivity and control is ingrained in us. 

Our culture wants everything to be fine, or at least make it appear that way (shoutout to everyone in the deep South). 

Simon Sherry, a psychology and neuroscience professor, puts it this way: “We’ve been putting forward unrealistically positive representations of self for hundreds of years.” It’s going to be anxiety-inducing to challenge that by showing our true selves.

Positivity pushers don’t know they’re harming you. 

“As a reformed positivity pusher, I realize now that my misguided attempts at being supportive arose from the fact that I simply didn’t know what to say to help,” says Sydney Loney, who had experienced this first-hand as a breast cancer survivor.  

The reality is, we don’t have Cancer Support 101 classes in high school or required readings on “How to Not Be a Jerk.” That’s why we put together our own list of “say this, not this” for cancer supporters in this post. We won’t judge if you send it to everyone you know. 

We love this meme-infused post from our bud Kate Williams called “Things that make cancer patients want to punch you in the throat.” Her list basically gets our blood boiling — cancer muggles really do say the darndest things. Here are some of our faves from her post that might strike a chord for you, too:

The appearance police:

Muggle: Uttering the phrase, “it’s just hair, it will grow back.” 

Problem: F*ck you. Shave off your eyebrows and all of your hair and pull out your eyelashes and then we’ll talk. 

Say instead: “How can I help you feel like you have dignity while you are going through this bullshit?”

The charity case:

Muggle cashier: “Do you want to donate a dollar for cancer?”

Problem: I have cancer. Are you going to give me a dollar? 

Say instead: “You look like you need some free guacamole.” 

It’s okay to feel angry, bud. 

Cancer muggles don’t understand what it’s like. It feels like they don’t see the real you. Hell, they aren’t even trying. It’s okay to not be okay with that.

"Over time, I grew allergic to the looks of pity and the positivity pushers who tried to cheer me up with their get-well cards and their exhausting refrains of ‘stay strong’ and ‘keep fighting.’ I began to feel angry at people’s trivial complaints about a stressful day at the office or a broken toe that meant they couldn’t go to the gym for a couple of weeks, and it was hard not to feel left out when my friends told me about a concert or a party they’d been to together.” - Suleika Jaouad, Between Two Kingdoms

ICYMI: This inspiring read was our recent book club pick.

This is where it becomes even more crucial to practice releasing suppressed emotions. You never know when a small trigger may set off your emotional volcano. Journaling, therapy, and engaging in relaxing/fun activities are great tools for practicing mindfulness.

Remember that this is your journey. Feel the feels. Keep the boundaries. Accept the real support. And for f*ck sake, don’t “keep your head up”, because you might trip. 

We want to hear your best (and worst) stories of cancer muggle encounters. Have you had positivity pushers come in hot with medical advice? Login or sign-up for buddhi to join the conversation on this topic.

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