The Frontal Cortex

Cancer and the Mind

The Cartesian wall separating the mind and body has been so thoroughly deconstructed that it’s newsworthy when a bodily condition is not affected by our mental state. After all, recent studies have shown that everything from chronic back pain to many auto-immune diseases are all modulated by various psychological factors, such as stress levels. But cancer appears to be relatively immune to the mind. Those tumor cells don’t care about what you think or feel. Here’s the Times:

The idea that emotional well-being can affect the course of disease finds no support in a new report on head and neck cancer.

The study involved more than 1,000 men and women older than 18 with cancers of the mouth, tongue and throat that had not spread. A questionnaire assessed quality of life, including physical health, family and social connections and emotional status. The patients were followed for an average of nine years, until death or until they stopped participating.

Although age, tumor classification, cigarette smoking and other variables were predictors of survival, scores on emotional well-being tests had no predictive value.

“A fighting spirit has its advantages, but one of them is not, apparently, cancer survival,” said James C. Coyne, lead author of the study, which appeared online Oct. 22 in the journal Cancer. “We looked at whether exceptionally high emotional well-being or exceptionally low emotional well-being had an effect. We found absolutely no evidence for either.”

Comments

  1. #1 Matt Penfold
    October 30, 2007

    My understanding is that many of the adjunct treatments offered or suggested during cancer treatment are not done to improve the chances of surviving but to make the often brutal treatment more tolerable, or preventing further opportunistic disease.

    Foe example yoga may help someone undergoing chemo to relax and sleep better. It may have no effect on their cancer but it may well have on their mental state. Eating a diet with plenty of fruit and veg is likely to help boost the immune system and reduce the risk of a bacterial or viral infection.

  2. #2 Zachary Tong
    October 30, 2007

    I remember hearing criticism of this study because the cancers in question (mouth/tongue/throat) are notably disfiguring. Some require extensive intrusion on your daily life, from feeding tubes to mandible removal. The criticism suggested that improved attitude just can’t shake a leg at the stark reality of missing your lower jaw.

    They suggested that looking at less debilitating cancers might have a better correlation between positive attitude and life expectancy.

    That said, the basis of cancer is that the cells are out of control and are unable to be curtailed by our bodies. I wouldn’t be surprised that cancer progression is completely independent of a positive attitude.

  3. #3 david1946
    October 30, 2007

    There seems to be an unfounded assumption that “positive outlook” == “fighting spirit” == (or !=) “ability to fight cancer by mind”. Unlikely even to be the complete set of verbalizations on the subject, when if anything I would say the significant factor has to be a pre-verbal quality of how the afflicted’s mind works. if any.

    I have no personal cancer experience. But for mind over body I do. From 13 to 18 I suffered extensive and very messy acne on my back, bloodstains on my shirt every night kind of messy. I was a student at a boys only school and thought that I would never find a woman who would look at me. So at 18 I did, and three weeks later my back was clear and has been so ever since. So I would add “self confidence” to the above list of descriptive phrases, and still I think be missing the point.

    And Zachary hits the proverbial nail-head re what is wrong with cancer cells: not responding to normal cellular controls. In my case it was most likely normal responses to abnormal hormonal cellular controls that was the pathology.

  4. #4 truth machine
    November 6, 2007

    Eating a diet with plenty of fruit and veg is likely to help boost the immune system and reduce the risk of a bacterial or viral infection.

    Um, “eating a diet with plenty of fruit and veg” isn’t a “psychological factor” — the correlation of the former with cancer prevention is well established.

    There seems to be an unfounded assumption

    No, there’s simply empirical science at work.

    I would say the significant factor has to be a pre-verbal quality of how the afflicted’s mind works. if any.

    Yes, well, let us know when you have any evidence of same in connection with cancer.

    I have no personal cancer experience.

    But that’s what is at issue here; acne isn’t cancer.

    But for mind over body I do.

    Anecdotal evidence, post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

  5. #5 truth machine
    November 6, 2007

    I remember hearing criticism of this study because the cancers in question (mouth/tongue/throat) are notably disfiguring. Some require extensive intrusion on your daily life, from feeding tubes to mandible removal. The criticism suggested that improved attitude just can’t shake a leg at the stark reality of missing your lower jaw.

    Such criticism is blatantly dishonest; the study is about the spread of cancer in 1000 people with mouth/throat/tongue cancer, not about 1000 people with feeding tubes or missing their lower jaw. Assuming there are such critics — “I remember hearing” doesn’t score very high on the scale of reliable citation; often it’s just a way of adding authority to one’s own opinion, although here we aren’t even told what credentials these alleged critics have.

    the basis of cancer is that the cells are out of control

    What tipped you off?

    are unable to be curtailed by our bodies. I wouldn’t be surprised that cancer progression is completely independent of a positive attitude.

    Despite the common association between stress and the state of the immune system? You seem to be suggesting an inference from “out of control” to “completely independent”, but the logic isn’t there. I suggest that there is a strong connection between “pschological factors” and the sorts of conclusions people reach.

  6. #6 School Psych
    November 10, 2007

    Being a cancer survivor, I can speak about the horrific standard treatments that do little to nothing to promote the health, vitality, and well-being of the person who is fighting the cancer. I can also speak about the amazing cognitive restructuring of my life during and after conventional treatment that focused on the unharnessed power of human thoughts. For example, Dr. Martin Rossman has worked for over 30 years on teaching people how to harness the power of their minds to fight disease. He has written a fascinating book entitled “Fighting Cancer from Within — How to Use the Power of Your Mind for Healing” about helping cancer patients to establish a healing goal alongside the medical treatment goal (whether conventional or not). It’s all about Psychoneuorimmunology (PNI). What I learned from my cancer experience is that most of what the media and cancer support organizations feed to the general public includes only information that can be directly connected to the multi-billion-dollar-a-year traditional cancer industry controlled by doctors, pharmaceutical companies and insurance agencies.

  7. #7 Leni
    November 11, 2007

    I would guess that having a better attitude would, at least for most people, translate into better participation in your treatment and that would in turn result in higher survival rates. Taking your medicine, being proactive about quit smoking or drinking or other potentially harmful habits, or trying to get more excercise and eating better. That sort of thing.

    But I wouldn’t have guessed that having a sunny disposition would effect any disease or disease progression that wasn’t stress-related, though.

    That said, I wouldn’t necessarily want to tell cancer patients this. Their attitude is about the only thing they do have control over. And I imagine that for some people, feeling like they can be proactive is helpful and gives them something to periodically focus on besides the horror of cancer.

    My best friend had a masectomy at 33 while going through a divorce. There was almost nothing we could do for her except sort of be there and sympathize, or do the chores. Being able to make her some healthy food and tell her to focus on getting better and taking care of herself was about all we could do, and it was as much about making us feel better as it was for her feel like she could participate in her own recovery. So, knowing about this study, I probably still wouldn’t mention it to anyone I knew who had cancer.

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