Your Mood Does Not Affect Your Cancer Prognosis
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work
JUNE 12, 2020
For years, in my practice as an oncology social worker, I have been trying to convince patients that normal sadness and anxiety about cancer and cancer treatment does not impact prognosis. Mood has zero to do with it. This frequent fear of cancer patients, that negative thinking harms recovery or worsens prognosis, has been a Damocles Sword hanging over far too many heads. It also, of course, is circular; it is easy to think along the lines of: "Being distressed will make my cancer worse, and the worse it gets, the more distressed I will be, and then it will be my own fault that the cancer comes back."
These worries are often exacerbated by the remarks of well-meaning friends who remind us: You have to have positive thoughts" or "Think about good things; I know you are going to be fine." Not only are these directives annoying, but, after a time, even the most resilient among us can begin to wonder if they are actually true. As in, you hear something enough and it takes on a life of its own.
Many studies have concluded that emotional status (meaning mood, level of positive or negative thinking, general outlook) neither affects progression of the cancer nor length of survival.
There has never been a well-designed study that indicates anything different. Although there is much written in the popular press about mood or personality type and cancer, it is basically hogwash. My own instinct is that such comments are one way that people who have not had cancer try to convince themselves that they will not ever have the disease. This thinking is similar to others telling you that if you ate a purely plant-based diet or exercised more, you would not have been diagnosed. Again, it can be a way for people, who have so far been lucky, to differentiate themselves from us and try to believe they will stay well. If you can believe that your health is guaranteed by positive thinking and a sunny outlook, you can feel safe in the world.
Having spent forty years working with cancer patients, I have never believed this for a minute. Each week, I sit with cancer patients and survivors of every possible flavor and style. The only common denominator is being human.
Of course, your mood impacts the quality of your life and the enjoyment of your hours. If you spend your days sad and anxious, the quality of your life will suffer. Your cancer, however, will not be impacted at all. The chemotherapy, radiation, or hormone therapy will work just as well whether you are crabby and pessimistic or annoyingly cheerful. Allow yourself, without guilt, to feel as sad or anxious or frustrated or angry as you need to feel — and then move on towards a better day.
Have you worried that your mood impacts your cancer? Join the BIDMC Cancer Community and share your story.