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Cancer Health Center

Positive Attitude Doesn't Whip Cancer?

Patients' Positive Thinking Has No Impact on Cancer Survival, Study Shows
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

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 issue.

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 enough."

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.

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