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Shaking confidence in patient optimism

November 18, 2002|Dianne Partie Lange | Special to The Times

Some cancer patients and their doctors believe that positive thinking and a determined spirit can help people in their battle with the disease.

A small British study done more than 20 years ago found that having a fighting spirit improved a woman's chances of surviving breast cancer, launching a wave of research and public interest in the healing power of positive thinking.

Now a team of researchers that systematically reviewed 26 of these studies has concluded that there is no scientific proof that having a positive attitude improves patients' odds at overcoming cancer. They also found no proof that cancer patients who feel a sense of helplessness or hopelessness have less chance of a cure.

"There is little consistent evidence that psychological coping styles play an important part in survival from or recurrence of cancer," the researchers from Britain and Canada write in a study published in the Nov. 9 edition of the British Medical Journal. The results of this review raise a concern about efforts by physicians and support groups to encourage positive thinking. According to the researchers, trying to persuade a cancer patient to be positive or be more of a fighter is not only inappropriate but also adds to the psychological burden the patient faces.

"We already knew that psychological factors have little influence in causing cancer: Cancer does not cause cancer, for example," says Mark Petticrew, a co-author of the study and public health researcher in Glasgow, Scotland. "This study adds to what we know by showing that coping styles don't affect cancer outcome either."

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