How much does optimism play a role in overcoming cancer?
Everybody has that one friend. You know the one. The one who’s always happy and upbeat. You complain about how your kids are stressing you out, and she says, “You’re a great mom!” You lose your job, and she says, “You’ll get a new one in no time!” And then you tell her, “I have cancer.” Her reply? “Just be positive!”
You know she means well, but it’s not that simple—especially when it comes to a serious diagnosis like cancer. Still, many people claim positivity has great power. Is there something to it?
“This is a somewhat controversial area,” says Tenbroeck Smith, the strategic director of patient-reported outcomes for the American Cancer Society. “The literature shows mixed results. Some studies show having a positive attitude is better for you. Then there are results that say positivity doesn’t really affect disease outcomes.”
Smith goes on to say it’s really all about how you define it, though. “We have to ask ourselves what we mean by positivity. Is it being happy and smiling? In a good mood? Or generally believing in an optimistic outcome?” he says. “There are days and times of day where you feel better than others. Optimism, however, has more to do with the belief that things are going to work out well in the long run.”
And optimism can affect your health. In one study, optimistic women were nearly a third less likely to die from cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease or infection compared with less optimistic women. Specifically, optimists had a 16 percent lower chance of dying from cancer than nonoptimists, according to the study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
In another study, published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology, optimistic lung cancer patients lived an average of six months longer than their pessimistic counterparts. No studies suggest optimism is detrimental to cancer outcomes, so it’s certainly worth a shot to take a sunnier view of things.
What does that mean if you’re positively a pessimist? It means that’s OK—you don’t need a personality transplant to see potential benefits. You don’t actually have to be an optimist to reap the health benefits of optimism. You just have to act like one. Here’s how.
- Surround yourself with support. Dealing with cancer is hard. There will be days you’re too tired to get out of bed or too distracted to listen to your doctor’s advice. The key is having people around you who can pick up the slack when needed. You might need someone to make you meals, drive you to treatment appointments or jot notes in the exam room. Let the people in your life help, and don’t feel guilty about it.
- Follow your doctor’s orders. It might be that optimists have better outcomes not because of their attitudes, but because they’re more likely than pessimists to follow a doctor’s treatment guidelines, Smith says.
“A true pessimist might decide they don’t want treatment because they believe it’s not going to matter either way,” Smith says. “But optimistic patients follow all the recommendations of the doctor because they believe they will work. And if you follow the treatment guidelines, you’re more likely to survive.”
- Talk about side effects. Optimists look for ways to deal with problems because they can see through to the other side of them, whereas pessimists are more likely to assume the way things are is how they’ll always be. Treatment side effects are a good place to practice optimism; you don’t have to just accept them. Talk to your doctor about ways to feel better. You may have more options than you think.
- Let yourself get angry. “One thing we feel strongly about is that we don’t want to tell people dealing with cancer they need to be rosy, shiny, sunny all the time,” Smith says. “Feeling angry, sad or depressed—those are real emotions you’ll deal with. Trying to smile when you feel like crying isn’t going to help anything.”
So go ahead and scream, cry or stay in bed when the feeling strikes. But also allow yourself to laugh, smile and be joyful when you feel like it, too.
OTHER BENEFITS OF OPTIMISM
Positive thinking can help people feel better when they’re sick, but the benefits are even greater with some conditions. One study showed cardiovascular patients who were optimistic were half as likely as pessimists to require re-hospitalization after a cardiac procedure.
“The more optimistic you are about your health, the less stress you put on yourself,” says board-certified interventional cardiologist Stuart Smalheiser, M.D., of Beaufort Memorial Lowcountry Medical Group. “Stress is one of the big risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Optimism can have a significant benefit if it reduces your stress level.”
Here are two other specialties with proven positive correlations between optimism and outcomes:
Immunology: Optimistic patients were less likely than pessimists to contract a common respiratory virus in a 2006 study.
Gerontology: Multiple studies have shown optimism can increase longevity. One study showed a 45 percent lower risk of mortality in adults ages 65 to 85 who demonstrated optimism compared with adults who did not.
“One way to increase optimism is by practicing gratitude,” said BMH Chaplain Ed Morgan. “Get started by downloading a gratitude journal to your iPhone or Android and record what you’re thankful for each day. It will go a long way toward helping you recognize the many daily blessings in your life.”