Updated: May 25, 2021
A recent study published in the journal Cancer caught my eye. University of Pennsylvania researchers looked at the role of attitude in the survival rates of cancer patients. They found that neither positive nor negative emotional status predict how long a person with cancer will survive.
The five-year study involved nearly 1,100 patients undergoing treatment for head and neck cancer. Participants completed a survey including items that assessed emotional well-being, such as “I am losing hope in my fight against my illness”. Researchers concluded that at the end of the five years, the level of optimism or pessimism displayed in the participants’ responses had no effect on the course of the illness or the patients’ survival.
Study researcher James Coyne says, “We anticipated finding that emotional well-being would predict the outcome of cancer. We exhaustively looked for it, and we concluded there is no effect for emotional well-being on cancer outcome.” I was somewhat surprised at the results myself, so I did some further digging into medical journals and discovered that this isn’t the first cancer-attitude study to come to the same conclusion.
Interesting. I have a long-held belief that our thoughts and emotions have a significant effect on our health. Is this study contradicting that belief? Isn’t there overwhelming evidence to support the mind-body connection?
I think most of us have noticed that when our minds are under stress, our body is affected. For example, when you feel angry (mind), your blood pressure is likely to rise (body). And you may be more likely to get a cold when you are under more stress at work or school.
One of the first to show the science behind the mind-body connection was psychoneuroimmunlogist (phewf!) Candace Pert. In the 1970s she discovered that protein molecules called neuropeptides are found in the cell walls of both the brain and the immune system; in other words, the very same chemicals that are in the mind are in the body, providing a biochemical basis for the interdependent communication between mind and body.
Pert’s discovery is just the tip of the iceberg. There is now a wealth of research to back up this connection. In fact a meta-analysis of almost 75 studies examining stress and immune system function showed a clear link between naturalistic stressors (such as divorce, unemployment) and a reduction in the number of circulating immune cells. Studies on humour and immunity show a positive correlation with the time a person spends laughing and their ability to recover from illness. This wealth of evidence appears to be incongruent with the University of Pennsylvania’s findings. The mind-body connection is clearly a complicated one and we have much more to learn.
The Secret is the title of a self-help film and book that promotes a profound belief in the mind-body connection. Proponents of The Secret suggest that everything – including disease and health – is a manifestation of our thoughts. The Secret teachers believe the mind has great power over the disease process. One interviewee in the film tells of a woman whose breast cancer spontaneously resolved, after she adopted the style of positive thinking promoted in the film.
According to The Secret, what we project outward – our attitudes, emotions and energy – is what we attract to us. If we are always depressed, for example, then that’s what we project in our “energy field” and, as a result, we attract people and situations that are more depressing. Furthermore, if we want to have something, all we have to do is envision it and it will be ours. “We can sit down and dictate what we want to come into our life and with absolute certainty it will arrive” says Bob Proctor, philosopher and teacher of The Secret. “You are the designer of your destiny”, states Lisa Nichols, another teacher, “…and the outcome is whatever you choose.” Hmmm. But what if someone has an illness and the outcome is an unfavourable one? Did the person not think positively enough? Are we blaming the victim here?
My mother recently lost an all-too-brief battle with cancer. She found out in early April 2006 that she had a tumour in her abdomen and within two months she had passed away. Throughout her illness she put on a brave face and looked for ways to fight the cancer. She knew that her death was imminent, but that she (and those around her) would be better served by having a positive attitude and looking for opportunities to have hope. I was so proud of her. There is such a pure and fragile beauty to the hope that people often manage to evoke in the face of tragedy.
But what would The Secret teachers think? Did my mother somehow attract the cancer into her life? And was her attitude not positive enough to beat it? It’s an interpretation of the mind-body connection that I’m not comfortable with.
Reading about the University of Pennsylvania study actually gave me some reassurance when thinking about my mother’s experience. Mom worked hard on her attitude but she was a worrier too. Contradictory studies aside, I’m glad that there is some scientific evidence that suggests her frame of mind had nothing to do with the outcome of her illness.
I’m definitely not giving up on the mind-body connection. The weight of evidence from researchers like Pert is strong and my clinical and personal experience continues to support it. I believe my mom got a lot of benefit from positive thinking in her final 2 months. She was truly engaged in life, surrounded by friends and family, with virtually no pain until her final hours. Perhaps her attitude was a factor in her quality of life, just not the length of her life.
In the end, the role attitude plays in our health is still not clear to me. But one thing I do know, is that I accept a certain randomness to health that isn’t accounted for in The Secret. You can do all the right things and still get sick – even with a positive attitude. When this happens we often look for reasons why. But sometimes there are no reasons. Athletes have heart attacks. People with healthy lifestyles get diabetes. And organic farmers with positive attitudes die from cancer. We don’t always have control over our destiny and sometimes that’s the greatest lesson we can learn.