Can A Positive Attitude Cure Cancer?


About a year ago, I attended a breast cancer retreat where I met a very interesting woman, whom I’ll call Vera.   Vera held a strong belief that her positive attitude had actually saved her life!  I was just coming back to the hotel from my early morning run when I came upon her sitting outside, enjoying her breakfast of coffee, donuts and a cigarette.  We soon got to chatting and sharing our stories, and I learned that she had battled cancer not once, but twice.  Five years after being declared “cancer-free” from stage 3 breast cancer, Vera was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.  Her doctor told her that the cancer had spread to the point that it was inoperable, and gave her only months to live.  As she lay in bed, thinking about how to share this devastating news with her family, she got a visit from the doctor who had treated her for breast cancer years before.

He said to her, “You don’t have to accept that death sentence, Vera.  How about I give you some radiation treatments to try to shrink your tumors?  At least it might give you more time.  What do you have to lose?”

Vera replied, “Doctor you are right. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.  If God saw it fit to save me from cancer once, he can do it again. I am putting this in God’s hands, and trusting in His plan for my life.”

The radiation treatments shrank the tumors, which could then be surgically removed, and fifteen years later, a cancer-free Vera was sharing her fascinating story with me as she blew smoke “O’s” into the air.

Did her optimistic attitude actually have such an impact on her health that it saved her life?  Now that is a topic of hot debate in the blogosphere!

Yesterday, I read a very interesting and thought provoking post from “The Big C and Me”, which challenges this whole notion.  The author, Renn, quoted these words from Gayle A. Sulik, Ph.D, author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health:

Optimistic attitudes “may help people to feel better emotionally,” but they don’t “positively impact cancer progression or survival… People who think positively get cancer and die from cancer at the same rates as people who do not.”

Dr. Sulik is absolutely right. Technically, if we take into account the scientific evidence, Vera’s positive attitude had nothing to do with her surviving cancer.  So if an optimistic attitude cannot help you to live longer, then what’s the point?  Isn’t it just as well to wallow in misery for the rest of your life if you are going to die anyway?   Well, that’s your choice.  Nobody gets out of this world alive; whether you have cancer or not, you are going to die of something.  A positive attitude may not help you to live a LONGER life, but I can assure you, it will help you to live a HAPPIER life.  Isn’t that what is really important?  (And who knows?  Maybe Vera’s positive attitude DID impact on her survival.)

Contrary to the existing evidence that attitude is not a factor in surviving cancer,  our book, 100 Perks of Having Cancer Plus 100 Health Tips For Surviving It, provides scientific evidence to support the notion that ATTITUDE can and does impact on longevity and survival rates!  However, it is not a positive attitude alone that can increase your chances of surviving cancer and reduce your risk of a reoccurrence; it is something that we call a SURVIVOR’S ATTITUDE.

A Survivor’s Attitude combines positive attitude with positive action.  We believe that a positive attitude is important to your quality of life, but if you really want the best odds of surviving cancer, you have to be willing to do the work.   Studies show that making lifestyle changes such as exercising, eating a plant based diet, and limiting alcohol consumption CAN and DOES improve your odds of surviving cancer.   Are you willing to lose the weight?  Quit smoking? Give up the burgers?  Commit to an exercise plan?  Simply put, having a Survivor’s Attitude means that you are willing to embrace these lifestyle changes in order to give yourself the best chances of surviving cancer.

Does attitude make a difference?  While having an optimistic attitude or a pessimistic attitude may mean diddly squat when it comes to surviving cancer, choosing a Survivor’s Attitude just might save your life!

17 thoughts on “Can A Positive Attitude Cure Cancer?

  1. I love your sharing thoughts on Cancer. I agree that survivorship involves personal work.
    I send compassionate healing and love to a survivor who doesn’t always agree with what I believe. Support and friendship and connection is important to all who have this ugly diagnosis in their lives. Heart hug

  2. I think you’ve hit that nail on the head. Attitude can lead to action, and those actions can make all the difference as you showed with Vera’s story. Right now I’m giving up sugar as much as possible. It’s a struggle at times (grocery store displays, desserts at friend’s houses, my pantry!), but it feels so very important to me and my pro-activeness toward cancer. ~Catherine

  3. I think it is extremely important when discussing this not to turn it into a “blame the cancer patient” situation. (I’m not saying you are, but it happens) There are millions of people who had positive attitudes (whatever that is) who took an active role in their treatment, cared for their bodies and spirit, and who are in their graves right now. Perpetuating the belief that you can mentally control cancer, or do so through diet and exercise, also furthers the idea that if you don’t, that if you become disabled and die, you have done something wrong – you didn’t try hard enough.

    The truth is, some cancers are just not survivable no matter what you do. And, it is not the cancer patient’s fault. We as humans like to control the uncontrollable and want to believe we are in charge of our own fate, but speaking as a Stage IV breast cancer patient who has done everything possible, who lived a very healthy life prior to diagnosis and still seen my cancer progress, I’ve learned that is just not possible to control.

    You gave a miracle story as an example, but the truth is that 50,000 people die of this disease a year and I’m quite certain that many of them were bright, active, interested, and tried as many therapies/diets/exercise programs as well. You have to look no further than Farrah Fawcett, who died of rectal cancer, to see that a great attitude and lifestyle changes don’t work.

    It’s funny, we don’t do this to any other disease. Oh, she died of Sepsis, she just didn’t have a positive enough attitude; or MS got him, he didn’t eat the right thing. For some reason, it is cancer patients who bear the brunt of this idea, almost like their disease isn’t a disease, it’s a failure.

    A survivor’s attitude is a nice idea but without evidence-based studies proving that it will help lengthen lives, I think we have to be very careful in how we present these ideas. I do agree that for those of us who have undergone treatment for a number of years, had surgeries, years of chemo, innumerable tests, a positive attitude can get you through all that; at least it has worked for me to reframe this experience in a positive way. But some who whine and cry constantly seem to get through it too, as do people who have no idea what drugs are dripping into their veins or even what kind of cancer they have. I believe that in many cases, it’s just luck of the draw.. And, the blowback on terminal cancer patients who are told they aren’t trying hard? Unfair.

    • Ann, thank you for your response. I read your blog and I follow your posts on facebook all the time and I think you are one of the most positive people I have ever encountered. I agree with you that a positive attitude is not enough to save a person from cancer…..and even people who have a positive attitude AND make every possible lifestyle change still do die of cancer. Heck, given my diagnosis, I will likely someday die of cancer myself. BUT…..the whole concept of a survivors attitude is that cancer patients do not have to feel helpless, like there is nothing they can do. After my treatments ended, that is how I felt. What now? Wait for it to come back? But the more I researched about lifestyle, diet and other factors that have been PROVEN to reduce the risk of reoccurrence (note: REDUCE not ELIMINATE the risk), it helped me to feel that I do have some control. And if ever the cancer comes back, at least I will be content with the knowledge that I did everything possible to prevent it.
      It is unfortunate that the myth exists that a positive attitude alone can “cure cancer”. In my public talks I always challenge this and say, “If a positive attitude could keep you alive, there are a lot of people I know that died of cancer who would be sitting here right now.” (And I always see a lot of heads nodding in the audience to this statement). I do firmly believe however that a positive attitude….which you clearly demonstrate, Ann….will ensure a better quality of life, no matter how long that life. Also, this is not MY belief, but all of the research that myself and Susan have done: lifestyle changes….such as diet, exercise, quitting smoking, losing weight, and eliminating alcohol (which I have not managed to do, truth be told) can and do affect survival rates and longevity…..Unfortunately, that is “statistically speaking”…..there are no guarantees. Like Vera in my story, you can do everything wrong (smoking, and eating donuts for breakfast…) and beat it…..or you can do everything right, and not beat it… my friend Sandy who was diagnosed days after me with the same diagnosis, but lived only one year….
      I thank you sincerely for your perspective. We do share similar beliefs, Ann…..but you just taught me an important lesson: that I must make sure that I am very clear on how I present my ideas, so as to not perpetuate the myths that exist around survivorship. God bless you.

  4. Great Post, if you have a positive attitude will to live and want to beat cancer, the fight will come natural. And, the way of living is big part as well. We need to change lifestyle to prevent cancer if we eat natural foods, vegetable’s its helps us a lot not only for cancer it can prevents many disease. Everyone should have positive attitude it really helps you a lot. Thanks for Great article.

  5. I am trying to understand the notion that we (Flo and I) are somehow “blaming” cancer patients for their illness by encouraging a positive attitude and offering people (whether they have cancer or not) a chance to improve and love their lives through better mental, physical, and spiritual health.

    I was involved in a car wreck a while back. Someone ran a red light and hit me. it wasn’t my fault. There was nothing I could have done to avoid it, but it happened.

    In 2005 I was diagnosed with cancer. It hit me. There was nothing I could do to avoid it, and it happened.

    The same way that I now drive more cautiously (and keep my angel pin and St Christopher medal on my visor)to reduce my risk of another accident, I live my life differently with respect to getting cancer. I live with a “survivor’s attitude”. (I think some confuse a “survivor’s attitude” with a “positive attitude”) There is a specific definition to “survivor’s attitude” when used here. It isn’t a term that means different things to different people like the term “survivor”. A “survivor’s attitude” means I am being pro-active with my thoughts and/or actions. Will a survivor’s attitude help me to avoid cancer? May yes, maybe no. There is no 100% guarantee that those who live a “survivor’s attitude” will live longer, but their chances are better than those who don’t. And the advantage is they will avoid other chronic illnesses that kill (more often than cancer) like heart disease and diabetes, and you will have a better quality of life.

    Those who eat a mainly plant-based diet, exercise, and meditate to reduce stress DO reduce their risk of cancer. (This is just one of the hundreds studies:
    The cancer division of the National Institute of Health and the World Health Organization also agree that lifestyle changes do reduce the risk of cancer.

    The fact is, only 5-10% of all cancers are due to genetics and the remainder are due to lifestyle and environmental causes. We are trying to help those people who wish to address the lifestyle part of their risk. We respect those who do not agree with what we are trying to do, but I just don’t see the “down side” of helping people live better and avoid illness…be it cancer or anything else. That’s why I became a nurse.

    Again, a reduction of risk is not an elimination of risk. No one can offer that.

    To those who say in talking about miracles and one in a million shots we are offering “false hope” I say there is no such thing. Hope in and of itself cannot be “false” any more than there can be false love. Hope is hope. There is nothing false about it. A one in a million shot is still a chance.

    In the above comment it states:
    “Perpetuating the belief that you can mentally control cancer, or do so through diet and exercise, also furthers the idea that if you don’t, that if you become disabled and die, you have done something wrong – you didn’t try hard enough.”

    Furthers whose idea? Who believes that they have done something wrong? If that is a belief, we, as health professionals, and health advocates, do not have anything to do with others thinking this way nor can we control others thinking this way. And we have never, not would we ever think or talk this way. Please know I am writing this in a compassionate way with the utmost respect for other’s feelings as I try to understand this.

    I respect and honor everyone , cancer diagnosis or not, and my mission is to help not hurt. That’s what I will try to do for as long as God lets me.

  6. Great post! Thanks for sharing. I think whether or not one has cancer, its always best to have a positive attitude in life. It sure does take a lot of work, with all the negative things happening around us, unexpected challenges and “rainy days”. But being optimistic can make a whole world of difference and it helps us face the problems with confidence and hope.

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