New Study on Emotions and Cancer

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work, emeritus

JULY 30, 2018

A Skeptic's View

There is a new study from Israel that suggests that positive feelings may shrink malignant tumors. This is the kind of headline that delights many people, but makes me uncomfortable and rather skeptical. First point: The study was with mice. Second point: There has been no study until now that has proven that any kind of positive thinking or cheerful mood has any biological impact at all on cancer cells. Third point: The science here is incredibly complicated and absolutely does not immediately prove that our moods and thoughts can shrink cancer.

Focusing on the impact of Dopamine in mouse brains, the scientists found that raising those levels energized the mice’s immune systems and resulted in tumor shrinkage. Impressive?  Yes.Tantalizing? Yes. Dangerous? Also yes.

Here is why I think these subtle hints are dangerous. Cancer patients are bombarded with advice from all sides. In addition to the serious business of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy or immunotherapy, we hear about the possible impact of diet and exercise and avoiding sugar and negative thinking. Usually coming from well-meaning friends and family, these suggestions can easily leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Imagine being asked to take responsibility for the growth or shrinkage of cancer cells. Does this make it our own faults if the cancer progresses? Did we not eat enough broccoli or laugh enough or avoid stressful situations?

We have spent years moving away from the suggestions about avoiding stress and negative thinking. We are generally better at not blaming the victim and remembering that cancer is a biological process that happens at the smallest cellular level. We are just not that powerful.

Whenever I have these conversations with my patients, I strongly remind them that there is no proof that any of these strategies are helpful. Don’t you think that if we actually could control cell growth, our doctors would be telling us how to do so? Cancer research and real progress is painfully slow, and we all welcome signs of hope. Telling us to think positively and increase the happiness in our lives seems counter-productive. No one going through cancer treatment is going to be cheerful all the time. We all have moments of fear and sadness and despair. Those moments do not stimulate cancer growth! We are not hurting ourselves with our black moods. Yes, our quality of life is diminished, and we may have bad hours or days, but those normal and appropriate feelings are not physically harming us by encouraging cancer growth. And the absence of those worries has definitely not been proven to shrink cancers.

Here is a link to a short article from The Times of Israel.

Please share your thoughts with us by leaving your comment at our BIDMC Cancer Community. Do you think this study has value?