Its good news, certainly, that a positive mental attitude has some: bearing on physical health. As we’ve reported, those with strong social ties and commitments seem to live longer than others. We’ve even pointed out that a sense of humor and the ability to laugh may contribute to good health. Yet there is a dark side to all this. If “Tight thinking” keeps you well, does “wrong thinking” make you sick? And what about people who are already ill? Does a now in attitude hasten death, and a fierce determination to survive increases the chances of survival? Rightly or wrongly, we tend to describe people with cancer as if they were engaged in single combat: “He’s fighting this thing.” And obituaries refer to a person’s “long battle.” Does bravery count?

Scientific evidence about a possible mind/body connection in cancer survival is often hard to interpret. Some researchers have suggested that patients with a positive attitude are likelier to get well. For example, a study conducted in London showed that a “fighting Spirit,” as opposed to “helplessness and hopelessness,” may help women with breast cancer to survive but only if the disease has not Spread. These people, of course, have the best prognosis, whatever their state of mind. But other studies have been unable to find a relationship between attitudes and cancer survival.

 At a recent symposium on emotions and cancer, one well known researcher, Barrie Cassileth of the University of Pennsylvania, dismissed the cancer/attitude connection. It’s easy to say that the mind has the power to heal, or accuse people of having a “cancer personality,” she observed, but we don’t say such things about tuberculosis, syphilis, or pneumonia— or any other illness doctors can cure. But Dr. Jimmie Holland of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, whose own studies have been inconclusive, believes it may be too early to discount the importance of attitude, While no one should be blamed for having cancer, she says that a positive attitude on the part of a cancer patient “is always helpful. The public wants to believe that, we want to believe that, and I think we encourage the kind of spirit of fighting that’s helpful.”

Nevertheless, spates of popular books and self pro claimed “healers” have recently appeared. Some of them come close to saying that people who get cancer, or who don’t recover from it, have brought it on themselves. Neil Fiore of the University of California at Berkeley has stated the case against this trend: “Cancer is not a punishment for wrong thinking, a weak will to live, or a loser mentality…if only they…tried harder.”

A strong desire to stay alive and well is an asset to anybody. If nothing else, it will give you the intensive to take care of yourself.

In cancer patients, a courageous attitude and a willingness to follow a prescribed course of therapy is an advantage, not only for them but for their doctors, friends, and families. The connections between mind and cancer remain unresolved—a field for more intensive investigation.

Article extracted from this publication >> September 23, 1988