I survived cancer, and I’d punch a hole through any mirror that forced me to smile


There’s a new tech gadget yet to hit the market intended to improve cancer patients’ lives. So what does it do? Does it increase access to care for people in rural areas? Does it lower the astronomic cost of treatment which unfortunately often makes economic privilege one of the main indicators of a patient’s ability to survive? No, it forces you to smile.

The Smile Mirror, as seen on CNN, is roughly the size of a tablet and features an opaque surface that becomes reflective when it recognizes a grinning face.

Here’s the thing: Cancer treatment is a science. It works the same no matter your mood. Cancer is a devastating, world-shattering experience and it shouldn’t be shameful to feel sad about it. Furthermore, dialogues about the power of positive thinking and metaphors for cancer as a battle serve to shame — either implicitly or, often, explicitly — people who choose palliative care to die comfortably.

It’s not just offensive — it’s predicated on junk science. Basically, we have no idea if smiling actually has any measurable impact on our mental state.

For cancer patients, positivity is overrated

The psychological effects of cancer, or any potentially terminal illness, are well documented. A study of more than 10,000 cancer patients found 19% have clinical levels of anxiety and another 23% have anxiety that was somewhat less severe. In the same study, 30% showed at least some signs of depression. A 2016 study found that more than 80% of women diagnosed with breast cancer exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder between the time they were diagnosed and the start of treatment.

I can speak from personal experience to the validity of these studies as my 2013 diagnosis with stage-four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma left me emotionally decimated, a topic I’ve written about at length.

Patients must cope with myriad worries throughout and following cancer treatment. There are the soaring costs of necessary medical interventions. There is, of course, the ever looming threat of death. While I was sick, I felt nearly daily guilt over the way my diagnosis was affecting my friends and family. For current cancer patients in the U.S., there is the threat of a Republican Party that has made it abundantly clear that protecting the nation’s sick and dying is not a priority.

And yet, at least once a week in the six months I was sick, someone asked if I was remembering to stay positive.

I was not. I lived.

Robert Kessler

The cost of the Smile Mirror would be better used on cancer research

Smile Mirror’s problem is not one of intention, but of purpose. “My intention is definitely not to tell anyone how to feel or when to smile. Neither do I suggest that this is a cure for cancer,” Smile Mirror inventor Berk Ilhan said via Twitter. “I witnessed a family member’s cancer battle and then decided to focus on the topic for my thesis projects.”

It was while studying for a masters at the School of Visual Arts in New York that Ilhan developed the idea for a range of products intended to improve cancer patients’ emotional well-being. He spent two years researching and developing the technology to make the Smile Mirror possible. Now he’s asking for donations from private citizens to make it a reality. (Ilhan has not yet responded to questions about how much money had gone into the two years of R&D and where that money had come from.)

Right now the mirror retails between $2,000 and $3,000. Ilhan plans to launch a Kickstarter soon, however, to help bring the price down to less than $500.

And there is the rub. Ilhan plans to solicit donations in order to make his Smile Mirror salable. There’s no telling how far that time or money could go if applied to research or technology leading to more effective treatments instead, and I can assure you that not having cancer anymore would be the most effective way of lifting a cancer patient’s spirits.

Is the therapeutic power of smiling even real?

For decades, it’s been an accepted fact in psychology that emotions work both ways. That is to say, if you’re feeling happy you will look it, and if you look happy you’ll eventually feel it. That belief is most often pinned to a 1988 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study conducted by Fritz Strack, who found that people who were forced into a smile by holding a pen in their teeth found a Far Side comic more amusing than those whose faces were forced into a frown.

However, in the decades since that study, researchers have had trouble replicating the results. A more recent study sampled nearly 2,000 subjects (to compare, Strack’s first of two experiments had only 92) and, as Slate reported in an in-depth analysis, the results “weren’t good.” While nine of the 17 international labs involved in the study showed that those who were smiling were one- or two-tenths of a point more amused by the comic, the other eight labs found that those who were frowning enjoyed the comic more.

To go further, Strack’s study as published was actually the result of two separate experiments. In the first, participants were asked only one question: “How funny is it?” It was in this go-round where smilers scored the oft-cited 0.82 rating points higher than the frowners. The second time Strack conducted the experiment, he asked two questions. First, how funny was the comic, and then, how amused did it make them feel. This time, frowners gave a slightly more positive response to the first question, though smilers responded positively more frequently to the second question.

What the tech industry won’t tell you is that disruption is largely a myth. Coworking spaces are libraries. Bodega is just a vending machine. Juicero was just an exceedingly expensive way to buy pre-squeezed juice. What it also won’t admit is that not everything needs to be disrupted. Don’t disrupt the mirror and tell me you’re saving my life.