Positive Attitude Doesn't Whip Cancer?
Patients' Positive Thinking Has No Impact on Cancer Survival, Study Shows
WebMD News Archive
Oct. 22, 2007 -- Having a positive attitude may help cancer patients deal
with their disease, but it doesn't directly affect survival, according to one
of the largest and most rigorously designed investigations ever to examine the
The study included more than 1,000 people treated for head and neck cancer;
the emotional state of patients was found to have no influence on survival.
The findings add to the growing evidence showing no scientific basis for the
popular notion that an upbeat attitude is critical for "beating"
cancer, says University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine behavioral scientist
James C. Coyne, PhD, who led the study team.
"I wish it were true that cancer survival was influenced by the
patient's emotional state," he tells WebMD. "But given that it is not,
I think we should stop blaming the patient."
'The Tyranny of Positive Thinking'
Jimmie Holland, MD, agrees. The Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
psychiatrist is a longtime critic of the "mind over cancer" proponents
who tell patients they must stay positive to survive their disease.
In her book The Human Side of Cancer, Living with Hope, Coping with
Uncertainty, Holland coined the term "the tyranny of positive
thinking" to describe the belief.
"The idea that we can control illness and death with our minds appeals
to our deepest yearnings, but it just isn't so," she tells WebMD. "It
is so sad that cancer patients are made to believe that if they aren't doing
well it is somehow their own fault because they aren't positive
Holland does acknowledge the benefits of staying positive during cancer
treatment, and she is an advocate of techniques like relaxation, meditation,
support groups, and prayer to help patients cope with their disease.
But she says there is no credible evidence that positive thinking alone
directly influences tumor growth.
"People really want to believe this, so even very good studies like this
one probably won't change public thinking," she says. "But the
scientific community is getting the message."
Attitude and Cancer Survival
The newly published study included 1,093 patients with head and neck cancer
who completed quality-of-life questionnaires during their treatment.