Psychology

Attitude, Beliefs, and Cancer – the Fact and the Fiction


Out of many myths about the human mind, this one is, perhaps, the most insidious one. Its danger spawns from its targeting an already vulnerable population, namely, cancer patients, and pulling them even further down, suggesting that their disease is the result of thinking the wrong thoughts.

Well, no. It’s not.

Let me restate that – there is no reliable research showing a connection between cancer and the mind. In fact, there’s not even any reason to expect such a connection – after all, animals get cancer too, and what kind of negative beliefs could they hold?

The “thinking can make you get cancer” idea is actually very attractive to the altmed and self-development community. For good reason too, the reason being: cancer is terrifying.

– Everybody can get it. In fact – everyone already has, in their body, countless cells that can become cancerous in a blink of an eye. Our immune systems tend to be able to deal with them well, however.

– Except for a few significant factors like smoking or radiation, there really aren’t all that many confirmed causes of cancer. So we don’t really know what to avoid and how to protect ourselves.

– While many types of cancer can be effectively combated, especially when detected early, there are some that we can’t really do much about, which are pretty much a death sentence.

– And death by cancer tends to be rather horrid and painful.

So… Horrible, painful death, which might be unavoidable, which we don’t know how to protect against, and which can get everyone? That’s pretty much the definition of terrifying. No wonder people try to seek solace and security, even fake ones, for this issue. After all, it’s easier to blame the person for thinking wrong than to accept they’ve just had bad luck in the genetic lottery.

I have to admit, shamefully, I was one of such people. I believed and claimed that your mind lets you reduce chances of cancer and helps you get over it. After all, what about the Simonton patients? What about the famous Mr. Wright, the often-recalled patient of Dr. West, whose cancer appeared to appear and disappear time and again depending on Mr. Wright’s belief in the experimental drug kreiboizen?

Well, when I got around to verify these stories, they turned out to be far less convincing.

Let’s take Dr. West’s patient… Yeah, about that – the patient was taken care of by Dr. West, but the only peer-revived notice about him came from a second or third hand observation by a psychoanalytic, Bruno Kopfler. NO ONE ELSE described this case – a case so shocking that you’d really expect it to be published by Wright’s physician, Dr. West. He did no such thing. Nor did any other doctor who had contact with Wright or West. In fact, the only notice of Mr. Wright comes not from a medical journal but from a psychology journal devoted to personality testing – a journal, where the level of editorial review of medical details was certainly lower than in any medical publication.

It gets more interesting. Although the Kopfler article is quoted often, these are almost always quotes from secondary sources. So people who quote the article don’t really know what it’s about; they just believe other authors have correctly summarized it. At the same time, you could expect the whole article to be one great study of this amazing case. Only… it isn’t. The case is mentioned, but it is by no means an article concentrating on the issue.

Something fishy is going on here. A case that is pretty much groundbreaking for medicine hasn’t been described ANYWHERE outside of a side note in a short article on a different issue, in a psychological journal about personality tests? Described by a guy who was a Rorschach test specialist and who wasn’t even a significant participant in the original case?

And then, for over fifty years since publication, there has never been, anywhere in the world, a second situation like this? And everyone is quoting the very same article from 1957, while the vast majority have never even read the thing?

Yeah, let’s restate – something stinks here.

How about Simonton, then? He does describe his best case studies in his Getting Well Again book. Well, the analysis of five most promising reports shows that two patients succeeded through standard therapy: one had a slow-growing tumor, one was probably misdiagnosed with cancer, and the final one could’ve been saved by normal therapy. (Friedlander ER. “Mental Imagery.” In Barrett S, Cassileth BR. Dubious Cancer Treatment. Tampa, Florida: American Cancer Society, Florida Division, 1991, p 73-78.). Clearly, his claims appear quite dubious as well.

Nor is there any research or experimental evidence connecting cancer with negative thinking, negative emotions, etc. As mentioned before, animals get cancer too, so in order to claim a connection between cancer and negative thinking, you’d need to claim an advanced consciousness, capable of verbal beliefs, in rats or in reindeer. Or claim that people are special for some reason and justify why we’re the only species in which cancer has a wildly different basis than in other species.

Both claims are pretty much impossible to uphold.

The problem with such claims is more significant, however.: The positive thinking ideology suggests that people get cancer because of how they think. So it suggests that people who are already suffering, who are often in a completely undeserved situation (smokers aside), should be burdened with the idea that it’s their thinking that’s wrong, and that’s the reason they’re sick.

It’s really hard to get more vile and unsympathetic than this.

Does this mean there’s no room for positive attitudes, etc. as far as cancer goes?

Actually, there is room. Just not in the field of some make-believe, mind-on-body action but in a very basic, behavioral sense. Basically, patients who believe they’ll get better will engage in therapy more actively, be more likely to take their medication on time and in the doses prescribed, and simply try harder to do what they can do to survive. However, a patient who has a negative attitude but who decides to be stubborn and do just what the doctors order will have the exact same chance of getting better. Because it’s what you do, how well you keep with your prescribed therapy that matters, not what you subjectively believe in or expect.

Your attitude and beliefs might help you combat cancer only through making you engage more actively in your therapy. That’s the only thing they can help with – but make no mistake, this is a significant and important help.

P.S. And what about crankjobs such as Total Biology or New German Medicine? I’d suggest keeping as far away from that worthless, often dangerous, trash as possible. Especially since it’s often combined with suggestions for delaying or stopping proper medical therapy, often using various manipulative techniques to get to their goal. My advice is simple – keep far, far away.

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