The Limited Power of Positive Thinking

As a naturopathic urologist, I thrive on alternative solutions. It’s my passion to find solutions to modern ailments in the wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, the science of lifestyle change, and non-invasive herbal remedies. But there are limits to the power of what some might call a minimalistic healthcare. Even positive thinking, which in recent years has gained popularity as a magical cure for all sorts of medical and non-medical trouble, can meet its match.

Rumors circulate among the optimistic crowd that positive thinking can have a strong impact on your cancer prognosis. Is this true? Can we really ward off our cancer with a smile? Surely physicians have observed the placebo effect, a phenomenon where symptoms improve in response to the belief that one has received treatment, despite the fact that one has not received any actual treatment. But we’re not talking about placebo effects: we’re talking about an active, daily choice to look on the bright side and think hopeful thoughts. The question remains: does optimism make any difference in my cancer risk or in my prognosis?

The word from is an honest “no”. Based on current evidence, “there’s no reason to believe that emotions can cause cancer or help it grow.” Looking at attitudes as personality traits, the evidence is similar; even the largest, highest-quality study ever conducted on the subject found “no link between personality traits and cancer survival.” Both and label this over-faith in optimism a “myth” about cancer.  

If keeping a stiff upper lip makes no difference for your cancer survival rate, does this mean that you should lose hope for recovery? Absolutely not! Even though your attitude does not affect your prognosis, it does affect countless other aspects of your quality of life such as your stress levels, the quality of your relationships, your energy levels, your motivation, and your happiness—which in my opinion is extremely important! If you keep a positive attitude during your treatment and recovery, you will be more likely to maintain a strong network of support throughout the process and stay active, which will do nothing but give you more power to fight the disease. 

Whether you have just entered the battle against cancer or have been fighting it for decades, my advice is: yes, keep a positive attitude. But I do not by any means recommend this as “treatment,” because there is no evidence that things work that way. I recommend a positive attitude (or hope, or optimism, whatever you like to call it), as a lifestyle choice that will help you to cope with the immense difficulties of dealing with cancer. It will not cure you, but it will give you the strength to cope with the treatment.