All in the mind: Can laughter cure cancer?

Cancer survivors often claim they beat the disease with positive thinking. They're talking nonsense, says Dr Rob Buckman

Helen, who has breast cancer, put it to me perfectly: "When I heard the word 'cancer', I couldn't understand anything you said to me after it. I was reeling, and all I could think was, 'This can't be happening to me'." That sense of unreality is almost universal. Hundreds of people have told me exactly the same thing, even when, as in Helen's case, they understand clearly that their particular cancer poses a very small threat to health or life. The fact is that "cancer" is the most dreaded word in our language. We all have a tendency to think of it as if it were one single disease that is remorseless and unpredictable, and that almost seems to have "a mind of its own".

It's that "mind of its own" aspect that poses a major problem in itself. It has lent so much support over the last few decades to the idea that any cancer can be controlled, influenced or even cured in some way by the power of the mind of the sufferer. Some theories even proposed that the mind, or attitude, or "negative thoughts" of the patient might have contributed to the cause of the cancer in the first place.

I first realised how damaging this theory could be during the height of Dr Bernie Siegel's popularity in the late 1980s. He is the Yale-trained surgeon who believed that certain types of attitude and personality could make the patient live longer. He called these patients "e-Caps" (for "exceptional cancer patients"), and wrote several books that were immensely popular. In his writings and on television, he suggested that if you had a positive attitude and enough determination, you could control or even defeat your cancer.

In the middle of this surge of enthusiasm for the apparent anti-cancer effects of positive thinking, one of my patients, Dorothy, came into the clinic holding one of his books and on the verge of tears. She was very upset and actually quite bitter: "It says here that if I try hard enough, I could make the cancer go away, and if it doesn't, that's because I don't love my husband and three children enough."

This whole hypothesis – perhaps I can call it the "mind-over-cancer" theory – has actually been disproved in detail, and repeatedly. Even by the early 1990s, four major studies had shown that changing attitudes and the mind, while they certainly helped the patients to cope and to get a higher quality of life, didn't actually prolong survival. These studies involved major complementary medicine centres in California and in Bristol, both of which are flourishing, and continue to give a great deal of care and support to their appreciative patients and families, even without prolonging or saving life.

In addition to those cancer studies, Siegel – to his credit – participated in two other projects, which also showed that positive thinking and becoming one of the e-Caps did not prolong survival or produce extra cures.

Source - Independent

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