You’ve Got to Believe: The Evidence on Positive Thinking in Cancer Outcomes

Mark Herzlich, Boston College All American linebacker and now New York Giants rookie, believes that positive thinking played an important part in his successful battle “to beat bone cancer” and return to football. World-renowned cyclist and cancer advocate Lance Armstrong credits not only topnotch medical care but also positive thinking in his overcoming testicular cancer. Armstrong stated on CBS Sunday Morning, “You can’t deny the fact that a person with a positive and optimistic attitude does a lot better.” Like the vast majority of individuals polled on whether or not the positive thinking can influence cancer outcomes, I believed/wanted to believe that positive thinking would be correlated with better survival data. But the weight of evidence does not support the thesis that optimistic attitude trumps the Big C, or even influences oncology outcomes. Rigorous research done by James Coyne, PhD, professor of psychology at the University Pennsylvania, shows no correlation between positive thinking/optimism and cancer survival. In the article “Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims and Unproven Medicine”. in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, Coyne and Tennen examined: 1) role of positive factors such as a “fighting spirit” in extending the life of persons with cancer; (2) effects of interventions cultivating positive psychological states on immune functioning and cancer progression and mortality; and evidence concerning (3) benefit finding and (4) post-traumatic growth following serious illness such as cancer and other highly threatening experiences. Coyne and Tennen found no scientifically rigorous evidence to support claims that positive thinking and optimism result in improved outcomes in cancer treatment. They challenge positive psychologists “to rededicate themselves to a positive psychology based on scientific evidence rather than wishful thinking.” The impact of the mind and its pervasive power and influence in our health and well being is undeniable, yet we need to carefully weigh the evidence and continue to seek to research and demonstrate the nature of the mind/body connection and not to oversimplify. Keep the faith!

Steven R. Peskin, MD, MBA, FACP is executive vice president and chief medical officer of MediMedia USA, which publishes Managed Care