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Is it true that a positive attitude prevents cancer?

Is it true that a positive attitude prevents cancer?

June 12, 2024

In recent decades, the belief that Maintaining a positive attitude can prevent the onset of cancer and contribute to overcoming this disease. These ideas are based on a very small number of investigations; nevertheless, the global analysis of current scientific evidence reveals that they are erroneous.

The main causes of cancer are related to environmental risk factors. They emphasize the tobacco consumption, the obesity, the infections, the radiation, the sedentarismo and the exhibition to polluting substances. Although psychological factors can influence to a certain degree in this disease through the degree of stress, its weight in general is scarce.

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The relationship between positive attitude and cancer

Several meta-analyzes of research on the possible association between psychological factors and the development or progression of cancers have been carried out. In a synthetic way we can affirm that a relation between the positive attitude and the prevention or recovery of these diseases has not been found.

The case of breast cancer has been particularly studied , partly because some of the studies that supported the hypothesis that the positive attitude prevents this disease had been carried out with women affected with this type of cancer.

No significant associations have been found between the prevention or survival of breast cancer and psychological factors such as the degree of psychosocial stress, social support or coping style of stress. However, there is a personality factor that does seem to be associated with cancer, as we will explain later.

Another study analyzed a sample of more than 1000 patients with neck and head cancer. No relationship was found between emotional well-being and survival time to the disease, nor with the rate of cancer growth.

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Psychological factors that influence cancer

Eysenck and Grossarth-Maticek, among other authors, have described a personality factor associated with the development of cancer: the rationality-anti-emotionality , which would be defined as the tendency to emotional suppression , with predominance of rationalization. This feature is conceptualized as a negative reaction to situations that cause stress.

While these two authors had linked cancer to a greater extent with people with a tendency to despair, scientific research has not supported this hypothesis. On the other hand, there is some evidence that rationality-anti-emotionality can influence the appearance of cancer.

If confirmed this approach, the most likely explanation would have to do with two facts: cancer is a set of diseases associated with the immune system (ie, the body's defenses) and chronic stress has immunosuppressive effects. Stress favors the development of cancer , although less than tobacco, obesity or infections.

It is true that psychological factors may favor the appearance or progress of cancer, but it seems that they only do so indirectly. This is exemplified in the data on coping with stress, but especially in behavioral habits that negatively affect the body how to smoke or eat inadequately.

Psychotherapy focused on this disease

During the last decades, various psychological therapies have been developed aimed at the treatment of cancer. Others focus on the prevention of these diseases, and even on the modification of personality factors supposedly related to cancer.

A particularly striking case is that of the visualization therapy developed by Simonton in the 80s. This program consists in visualizing the body's defenses destroying cancer cells, as well as in promoting a positive attitude in general. We have not found independent studies on the effectiveness of this "treatment".

There is also the creative innovation behavior therapy , developed by Eysenck and Grossarth-Maticek based on their own hypothesis. It focuses on the development of new behavior patterns that substitute the attitudes that authors associate with the appearance and progress of cancer. Again, it has been studied basically by its own creators.

If we are guided by the available scientific evidence we can conclude that the psychological intervention in cancer should focus on the prevention of the main risk factors (consumption of tobacco and alcohol, inadequate diet, sedentary lifestyle, etc.) as well as adherence to medical treatments, more than in the famous "positive attitude".

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Bibliographic references:

  • Butow, P.N., Hiller, J.E., Price, M.A., Thackway, S.V., Kricker, A. & Tennant, C.C. (2000). Epidemiological evidence for a relationship between life events, coping style and personality factors in the development of breast cancer. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 49 (3): 169-81.
  • Coyne, J.C., Stefanek, M. & Palmer, S.C. (2007). Psychotherapy and survival in cancer: the conflict between hope and evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 133 (3): 367-94.
  • Philips, K.A., Osborne, R.H., Giles, G.G., Dite, G.S., Apicella, C., Hopper, J.L. & Mine, R.L. (2008). Psychosocial factors and survival of young women with breast cancer. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 26 (29): 4666-71.

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