Does a Positive Attitude Help Patients Recover From Cancer?

Within the past hour or so, I received a text message from my grandmother regarding the progress of my grandfather’s cancer. She shared the news that his cancer therapy worked and there was no evidence of malignancy on his cytology report. Obviously this is extremely great news and my whole family is thrilled, but something I recalled during the period of his diagnosis and treatment, was that both my grandfather and grandmother kept their spirits high and their attitudes positive. Not once did they feel bad for their current situation or even consider the possibility of the cancer progressing even further. This lead me to think about the idea that keeping a positive attitude could potentially help cancer patients, and increase the possibility of remission. So does a positive attitude help patients recover from cancer?

Survival from cancer is commonly thought to be influenced by a positive attitude as well as psychological coping skills and methods. Although there are a fair amount of individuals that debate the idea of positivity influencing cancer survival. There are numerous studies that are currently being done, as well as ones that have already been performed. In one study, 578 female early- stage breast cancer patients had their psychological response measured as well as their anxiety and depression levels. They were followed up with for 5 years following the initial study. After 5 years, there were women 395 that were without relapse, 133 that had passed and 50 that were undergoing a relapse. The study goes to say that, “there was a significantly increased risk of relapse or death at 5 years in women with high scores on the helplessness and hopelessness category of the MAC scale compared with those with a low score in this category.” The conclusion of this study is that had a high level of helplessness/hopelessness had a moderate effect while those with depression had a significantly reduced chance of survival.

The weaknesses of this study is that this is a fairly small number of patients to study, and does not account for the millions of people with breast cancer. Also the measurement of psychological response using the CEC (Courtauld Emotional Control)  and MAC (mental adjustment to cancer) scale may not be completely accurate measurements of mood. The MAC scale is a “brief 40-item questionnaire was developed to assess patients’ reactions to having cancer in five dimensions: fighting spirit, helplessness or hopelessness, anxious preoccupation, fatalism, and avoidance (the latter two being previously labelled as stoic acceptance and denial)”. The CEC scale, “assesses the extent to which patients suppress negative emotions; a focal variable of the suggested type C cancer-prone personality. The questionnaire assesses the tendency to respond to feelings of anxiety, sadness, and anger by suppressing or controlling reactions when these emotions are experienced.” These measurements could be very subjective and dependent on other situations. Also, there are various confounding variables that can possibly come into play with this study. All the patients have lives outside of the hospital and may be influenced by things such as spouses, children, work etc. The study that was done was an observational study that carried out for 5 years.


In conclusion, one of the answers to the question, which was found in another study is,  “although no studies have equated a positive attitude to a better prognosis, social support mechanisms seem to increase survival rates from cancer.” This essentially means that no study could 100% prove that a positive attitude correlates directly to a better prognosis, but it can aid in helping along side a positive support network. This was evident in the situation with my grandfather, his social support was outstanding and my grandmother stayed positive, alongside the rest of the family. Regardless of how many studies are analyzed, there is not a specific answer due to the fact that there are too many possible confounding variables as well as the fact that there isn’t a universal way to test a positive attitude.

4 thoughts on “Does a Positive Attitude Help Patients Recover From Cancer?

  1. Sarah Jo Sokoloski Post author

    There actually wasn’t an experiment that occurred, the patients weren’t part of an experimental treatment, they answered questions for a study and had different measures of their mood. Considering this wasn’t an experiment there was no placebo group or change that could be measured, it was a matter of whether or not these patients relapsed, passed away, or were in remission 5 years after they took part in the initial study. It would be a matter of ethics if an experiment was performed.

  2. Dillon Kiyoshi Corda

    I would assume people taking a new experimental treatment would feel pretty hopeful about it working and have a better outlook on their condition. From one of these trials, maybe measuring how a placebo group’s condition changed could provide more insight on how a positive attitude could affect their chances of recovery.

  3. Sarah Jo Sokoloski Post author

    I completely agree with the possible confounding variables that you stated. There are definitely many things that could come into play that could impact the attitudes of people. As you stated, one of those things could be severity of cancer and that could also impact the relapse factor as well. This particular study that I cited questioned women that were in the early stages of breast cancer. Although, I would be curious to compare the answers of women that were in later stages of cancer as compared to those who were in the early stages.

  4. Meghan Kelly Shiels

    After reading this I became interested in some of the possible confounding variables that might be at play here. For example, I would love to see data on severity of breast cancer compared with the response on the questionnaire. To me it seems like those people who had a more severe case of breast cancer may have a less hopeful attitude, but they also would have been more likely to relapse or die. In this way, reverse causation might play a role hear. Rather than a positive attitude —> Good chance of survival. Good Chance of survival —> Positive attitude.

Comments are closed.