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Sunday, 16 April, 2000, 01:23 GMT 02:23 UK
Cancer - does a fighting spirit help?

Do people with a positive mental attitude fare better?
A study suggests that cancer patients with a positive mental attitude may improve the body's ability to fight cancer. But is it a good idea to tell patients this?

There are many who believe that facing a diagnosis of cancer with a "fighting spirit" can make a big difference to the final outcome.

However, the scientific evidence to support this is limited in the extreme.

The latest piece of research tackling this issue is to be presented to a British Psychological Society conference in Winchester.

Professor Leslie Walker, from the University of Hull, looked at 80 women diagnosed with breast cancer.

All received exactly the same treatment and emotional support, but half also received training in relaxation techniques - they were taught to visualise their body's defences "overcoming" the cancer cells.

The women were judged as having a better quality of life than those who only received treatments plus emotional support.

And when their white blood cells were examined, they were found to be significantly different.

No evidence

However, there was no evidence that the final outcome of their disease was improved by positive thinking.

But Professor Walker said: "Our results show that relaxation and guided imagery can bring about measurable changes in the body's own immunological defences.

"This is an intriguing and exciting finding, although I wish to stress that the effects of these changes on the cancer itself are not known."

While most cancer support groups can provide anecdotal examples of how positive thinking helped a patient overcome cancer, other scientific studies showed mixed results.

While one suggested that a "fighting spirit" might have some genuine effect on outcome, another, published in the Lancet in October last year, could find no sign of this effect.

However, it did find that women with feelings of helplessness or hopelessness about their condition were less likely to survive.

Dr Molly Watson, from the Royal Marsden Hospital who led that study, suggested that negative thinking could have a detrimental effect on their immune system or produce stress hormones which might have a poor effect on general health.

She added: "Another theory is that patients who feel helpless may be less motivated to get the best available medical treatment."

Dr John Toy, Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Medical Director said: "Studies by Imperial Cancer Research Fund have shown that over 50% of breast cancer patients report significant anxiety and/or depression at some time in the year after diagnosis.

"Research also suggests that stressful life events are associated with an increased risk of recurrence and that being depressed or feeling hopeless and helpless can have an adverse effect on survival and quality of life.

"While there is currently no conclusive evidence showing that a fighting spirit affects the outcome of the disease, the latest findings are very interesting and warrant further investigation."

Heart patients

"Positive thinking" studies have been carried out in other specialties.

A study of coronary angioplasty patients found that a better attitude improved their prognosis.

Cancer treatments can be gruelling
Those with fighting spirit were much less likely to sustain a new cardiac complication in the six months after the procedure.

However, those who suggest that a positive view of life is the key to success against cancer may be doing more harm than good, particularly in the absence of firm scientific evidence.

A spokesman for CancerBacup, which provides a comprehensive information and counselling service for cancer patients, said that some patients felt guilty because they were unable to keep their spirits up.

"A positive attitude clearly helps when people have to cope with cancer and its treatments. However, this does not mean that you have to be cheerful all the time.

"Everyone who has cancer experiences feelings of helplessness, and often feels too tired to be positive and show a fighting spirit.

"This does not mean that they lower their chance of a good outcome from treatment."

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See also:

20 Oct 99 | Health
Wine drinkers think positive
04 May 99 | Health
Breast cancer gene breakthrough
18 May 99 | Health
'New era for cancer treatment'
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