Monday, October 22, 2007

Study Finds: Positive Attitudes Don't Slow or Cure Cancer

Now that I've knocked Pharyngula a few times, I guess I'll do a post favoring some good ol' enlightenment rationalism, based on this study from the BBC.

An oft-touted example of mind over matter is the efficacy of optimism in aiding cancer cures. A good outlook is supposed to equal a cure. "How brave and corageous she was," we hear of those who pull through. "She struggled and she overcame."

Sometimes nastier stories drift in of assumptions that people who died from cancer somehow sinned in succumbing. They gave up. They were weak. They failed to fight. They didn't want to live. They weren't strong enough.

My mom had such an anecdote a few years ago, to describe the way that her hairdresser's husband had died. "[My hairdresser] says he gave up, and died a week after that. What a shame. It's too bad he gave up."

The appeal of such a narrative is obvious -- it gives us a sense that we control our own fates. It gives us a tool -- optomism -- to hold against insurmountable odds. If we can be positive and uplifting enough, we have a chance against illness. It's only those who give up that die.

Optomism as medical cure is a secular replacement for prayer as medical cure. For some religious people, it's a way to talk about the power of prayer in language that's acceptable to the ears of people who don't believe in the efficacy of appealing to god for intervention. For areligious people -- like my mother -- it can be a replacement for prayer, a way of capturing the sense of control that we gain from something like prayer, and applying it to a (mostly) materialist view of the universe.

Unfortunately, it doesn't actually work.

The power of the mind has been overestimated when it comes to fighting cancer, US scientists say.
They said they found that a patient's positive or negative emotional state had no direct bearing on cancer survival or disease progression.

They do suggest that cancer patients continue with therapy and working toward a positive attitude -- but they suggest it so that cancer patients can be happier, not as a life-saving measure. From the article, "Lead author Dr James Coyne said: "If cancer patients want psychotherapy or to be in a support group, they should be given the opportunity. There can be lots of emotional and social benefits. But they should not seek such experiences solely on the expectation that they are extending their lives."

Of course, on one hand, it's depressing to discover that we can't cure ourselves through sheer cheerful bloodymindedness. It's hard to acknowledge that we don't have control over these things, that our outcomes are determined by factors we can't affect.

I am reminded of the debates about rape, in which people will go to great lengths to blame the victim. We understand why many men do it, but I've always found it insightful when feminists observe that one reason many women will do it, too, is because women want to convince themselves that they have the power not to be raped. That if they are not sluts, that if they don't drink at the wrong time, or trust the wrong person, or go out at night, or wear a short skirt, they can eliminate the possibility of being attacked.

We know it's not true with rape, and now we know it's not true with cancer either: you can't force yourself to be safe, or be cured. But the silver lining in both situations is the same. If we accept that optimism and ineffective safety measures are not the protection that we want to claim, then we can stop blaming the victim. We can stop suggesting that women invite their own rapes, and we can stop suggesting that people invite their deaths because they don't try hard enough to maintain a sunny disposition.

Julia Frater, of Cancer Research UK, said: "People with cancer can feel under pressure to cope well with their disease and treatment and to stay on top of things. They are often urged to feel positive.

"These results should reassure them that if they don't feel like this, it's okay. Many people do feel worried or low following a diagnosis and this isn't likely to affect the outcome of their treatment."

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