Cancer patients who are positive in the face of terrible adversity

God helps those who help themselves.
-Something that sounds like truth but fortunately isn’t mentioned in any religious text

“I’m gonna beat this thing again, Doc! I just know it!”

Over the course of several years, I helped care for a man with a very rare cancer that recurred over-and-over. With each new tumor, he became more focused on beating the disease and despite the repeated setbacks, he remained eternally positive. He spent hours researching every available experimental treatment. He trekked from center to center for therapy. His determination was inspirational.   Despite the intensity of his effort, he eventually lost his battle and died. His well-attended visitation and funeral were testimonies to his remarkable life, his outgoing personality and the respect everyone had for his determination.

My super-positive patient told me more than once that his attitude was helpful. “It’s why I’m still alive,” he said. His intensity prompted me to ask: How does attitude affect survival? If a patient tries “hard enough,” can cancer be controlled?

It’s a difficult issue. It is wonderful being with people who are optimistic. As a physician, patients who are positive in the face of terrible adversity are inspirational. Of course, many patients dealing with cancer are devastated both physically and emotionally. With the tobacco-related cancers for which I care, many of my patients carry an extra burden of guilt.

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Psychiatrist Jimmie Holland, MD works with many patients who carry this burden. She refers to a patient or family’s insistence that he or she maintain a positive attitude at all times as “The Tyranny of Positive Thinking.”

What does research tell us? A positive attitude in cancer patients does not prolong life. In a study of over 1000 head and neck cancer patients, there was no association between the scores of emotional well-being and cancer survival.  Similarly, a study of Canadian women with metastatic breast cancer randomized to receive group psychosocial support did not survive any longer than women who were not in a support group, although they had an improved mood and some experienced less perceived pain.

So, is this good news or bad? It depends on your interpretation. From my vantage point, the finding that there is no correlation between attitude and survival serves as a gift for our patients and for us. Allowing people to accept their condition and honestly question their fate, no matter how they handle the challenge, might be enormously helpful for some. They don’t need to fear honest discussions.

“No, you don’t have to be upbeat all the time.”

“Yes, you can talk about your sense of loss.”

“You can’t cause any harm by facing the difficult topics.”

Patients do not risk disaster if they react appropriately to stress.

Cancer centers like ours provide resources for patients and families who are dealing with stress, and I commonly suggest people explore the resources in our Quality of Life Center. The goal is not to regain a positive attitude, though. It might be to improve a relationship or understand and manage their lives at a stressful time. The small victories come, not always with cure, but at the moments of healing.

Bruce Campbell is an otolaryngologist who blogs at Reflections in a Head Mirror.

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  • Loretta Donovan

    Jimmie Holland, MD is a terrific woman – and someone I have had the pleasure of knowing. Her husband, James Holland, MD, is an oncologist. A dynamic duo.

    • Hope For-Lymphoma

      Thank you, Loretta. I wish the author had done 30 seconds of fact checking. Even better if Bruce had actually read the book he was touting or checked out the website. A little let down by the superficial approach. And it’s hasty and sloppy sexism and an ignorance of language to refer to Jimmie – as opposed to Jimmy – as a “he”. I think I’ll stick to docs who do their homework and think before publishing!

      • bruce

        My apologies to everyone. A correction has been made. I haven’t been called a sexist hackster for a while.

        • EE Smith

          “I haven’t been called a sexist hackster for a while.”


        • SarahJ91


  • Andrew Griffith

    While I agree positive thinking does not help the outcome, it does help getting through treatment and recovery, and help one be more active in one’s cancer care. And that is almost as important to patients and their families, to allow them to have ‘quality time’ together and take advantage of whatever moments their cancer journey provides.

  • katerinahurd

    Do you agree that when the patient maintains his quality of life at the end of his life is the ultimate definition of the autonomy of the patient? Do you think that medicalization of the dying process alleviates the autonomy of the patient?

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