Does Attitude Affect Cancer Survival?

I just heard on the radio that an optimistic attitude doesn’t help cancer patients live longer. True?

– March 29, 2004

Results of a recent Australian study reported in the Feb. 9, 2004, online issue of Cancer showed that an optimistic attitude didn’t prolong the survival of lung cancer patients. Researchers followed 179 patients with non-small cell lung cancer, a disease that has a particularly bleak outlook. The patients answered questions about their attitude and optimism before their treatment began and again after it was completed.

Five years later, after 96 percent of the patients in the study had died, the researchers found that their levels of optimism were not related to how long any of the patients lived or to the progression of their disease.

The research team leader expressed concern that pressure to feel upbeat and optimistic may have unintended results – patients may feel that their attitudes are to blame if their condition worsens. She also suggested that patients who force themselves to display an upbeat attitude might hide their true feelings and not communicate honestly with their families and friends.

Despite their findings, the researchers suggested that optimism might benefit patients with other types of cancer. Earlier studies have shown that optimism can enhance health. In one, published in the November/December 2001 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health followed 1,306 men for 10 years, and found that the optimistic men had less than half the risk of heart disease than pessimistic men.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of data about the effects of optimism on recovery from diseases, including many types of cancer. In many cases, cancer patients live a long time after being diagnosed. Their optimism (or lack of it) can influence how well they care for themselves, which may eventually have an impact on their survival prospects.

If you’re diagnosed with a serious illness, you may fare better if you’re a naturally optimistic person. If not, you can "learn" to think positively. I recommend reading "Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind & Your Life" (Pocket Books, 1998), by psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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