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Cancer Health Center

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Attitude Doesn't Affect Cancer Survival

Optimism Doesn't Extend Life, but Can Improve Its Quality After Diagnosis

Positive Attitude: 'An Additional Burden'

For their study, researchers at six Australian cancer centers tracked 179 patients with a type of lung cancer that typically kills 85% of patients within five years. The patients were surveyed about their attitude and levels of optimism before treatment began, then six weeks after completing treatment. During the five-year study, all but eight patients had died.

The only trend noticed was a small but measurable drop in optimism as patients experienced the toxic effects of their treatment.

"Encouraging patients to be positive may represent just an additional burden," write the researchers. "We should question whether it is valuable to encourage optimism if it results in the patient concealing his or her distress in the misguided belief that this will afford survival benefits."

Still, at least one expert tells WebMD that cancer patients should try to stay upbeat.

"Being optimistic may not have any impact on the length of life, but it certainly has an impact on the quality of life," says Ann Webster, PhD, director of the cancer program at the Mind/Body Medical Institute run by Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

"If you are optimistic and hopeful and have that fighting spirit, you will go through the whole cancer experience in a much better way than if you are depressed and hopeless. I don't think anyone has ever promised that attitude will cure cancer. What we say is that it may enable you to cope better and to feel better."

SOURCES: Schofield, P, Cancer, published online Feb. 9, 2004; in print March 15, 2004. Petticrew, M, British Medical Journal, Nov. 7, 2002; vol 325; pp 1066-1069. Jimmie Holland, MD, Wayne Chapman chair of psychiatric oncology, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York; cofounder, International Psycho-Oncology Society. Herman Eyre, MD, chief medical officer, the American Cancer Society, Atlanta. Ann Webster, PhD, health psychologist and director, cancer program, Mind/Body Medical Institute, Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston.

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