The Latest Cancer Research Is All About Treating the Mind, Not the Body

"Cancer is more than a physical disease," Stanford University psychologist says.

We all know that how you feel mentally can have a strong impact on how you feel physically. When it comes to a disease a serious as cancer, however, we tend to think of it as something that only medicine could possibly treat. But a new paper published in the journal Trends in Cancer indicates that empowering patients to change their mindset about their cancer diagnosis could help them get better care.

"We spend millions of dollars every year trying to cure and prevent cancer," Alia Crum, the director of the Mind & Body Lab at Stanford University and co-author of the study, said in a statement. "But cancer is more than a physical disease. As we strive to target malignant cells with the latest cutting-edge treatments, we should simultaneously strive to provide equally precise treatments for the psychological and social ramifications of the illness."

Receiving a cancer diagnosis can often bring on symptoms of anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts, all of which can inhibit a patient from seeking treatment or making helpful changes to their lifestyle. To combat this, Crum and her team propose encouraging patients to think of their body as a friend rather than an enemy, as well as viewing the disease as a manageable illness rather than a life sentence.

"Having the mindset such as 'cancer is manageable' or even an opportunity does not mean that cancer is a good thing or you should be happy about it," Crum clarified. "However, the mindset that 'cancer is manageable' can lead to more productive ways of engaging with cancer than the mindset that 'cancer is a catastrophe.'"

Crum's research on how one's perspective on their cancer diagnosis can affect their outcome is still ongoing. But a October 2018 paper published in the journal Metaphor and Symbol did find that framing the circumstances of the illness as a "journey," rather than a "battle," made patients more likely to think they had control over the disease, and less likely to think of "losing" the fight and potentially dying.

"One way of coping is by reconceptualizing our experiences," the 2018 paper reads. "Of course, there are many cases of physical illness in which a change in mindset will not lead to a better physical outcome, but may still contribute to a better quality of life."

Similarly, a recent study on addiction treatment found that people with substance abuse issues who were given a "growth mindset message" seemed to feel more confident about their ability to beat their addiction and more likely to seek treatment than those who were instructed to think of it as a disease.

And an increasing body of research shows that optimism does carry tangible health benefits. Anecdotally, one young woman battling a rare form of lymphoma told Best Life in 2018 that she certainly believes maintaining a non-catastrophic mentality has helped her survive. "I never let myself be afraid that I won't make it through the day," she said.

For more on this disease and what causes it, check out these 30 Things You Had No Idea Could Cause Cancer.

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Diana Bruk
Diana is a senior editor who writes about sex and relationships, modern dating trends, and health and wellness. Read more
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