Does a Positive Attitude Affect Breast Cancer Survival?

Nurse talking to positive woman
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Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets are full of comments from well-meaning individuals who remind those with breast cancer, any cancer for that matter, to fight their cancer, and keep a positive attitude because these two activities are important to their survival. Most of us have shared the same message with friends and loved ones living with breast cancer. While these messages are meant to be helpful, according to studies, they are not accurate.

Not only are they not accurate, they place a burden on the person with cancer who has enough on his or her plate trying to cope with fear, side-effects, financial worries, and the impact of his or her cancer on the family. All we are giving them another thing or two they have to do.

A diagnosis of cancer brings with it a range of emotions that make attaining and keeping a positive attitude an unrealistic challenge. Being told to keep a positive attitude often causes feelings of guilt for the person with cancer. Oft times those with cancer don’t share how they really feel for fear of not coming across positive, which only further isolates them at a time when they need all the support they can get.

Some patients themselves, as well as others in their circle of family and friends, want to believe that they have the power to control the outcomes of their serious illnesses. While this may bring comfort, it simply isn’t true.

The problem with embracing this belief system occurs when persons with cancer aren’t doing well and start to blame themselves for their deteriorating health.

Then there are those that believe some people, based on their personalities, are probably more likely to get cancer and are more likely to die of cancer.

Most study results showed no link between personality and cancer. The few studies supporting the premise that there is a relationship between personality and cancer were found to be flawed because they were poorly designed and controlled.

A large study, conducted in 2007, included more than 1,000 people with cancer. The study found that a patient’s emotional state had no influence on his or her survival. Scientist James C. Coyne, PhD at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who led the study team, reported that the results of this study add to the growing evidence showing no scientific basis for the popular notion that an upbeat attitude is critical for "beating" cancer.

The largest and best-designed scientific study, to date, was published in 2010. The study looked at almost 60,000 people, who were followed a minimum of 30 years. The study controlled for smoking, alcohol use, and other known cancer risk factors. The outcome of the study shows no link between personality and overall cancer risk. There was also no link between personality traits and cancer survival.

Does Psychotherapy Affect Survival?

There has been research in the areas of psychotherapy, and stress reduction with researchers looking at the possible effects on cancer survival.

These studies resulted in mixed findings, which resulted in confusion for patients, family members, friends, and media people reporting on findings. A good example of this kind of confusion is a study done by David Spiegel and his colleagues, in 1989, which seemed to link a difference in survival with being part of a support group. However, when other researchers did the same kinds of studies, they did not get the same results.

A review of a 2004 study the results of many well-designed studies of cancer patients getting psychotherapy. More than 1,000 patients were tallied in the final results, which clearly indicated that being in therapy was helpful for some in coping with their cancer, it had no impact on survival.

In 2007, other researchers revisited all previous studies about therapy and its impact on cancer survival. They found that no randomized clinical trial set up to look at survival and psychotherapy has shown a positive effect on patient survival.

However, research does indicate that giving cancer patients access to information about their cancers in a support group environment, as well as giving them the opportunity to get and give support to others in the group reduces tension, anxiety, and fatigue, and may help patients cope with depression.

While support groups play a vital role in improving a patient’s quality of life, scientific evidence does not support the idea that support groups or other forms of mental health therapy can help people with cancer live longer.


1. Cancer survival not linked to a positive attitude, study finds, American Psychological Association January 2008, Vol 39, No. 1,

2. Attitudes and Cancer, American Cancer Society,

3. Positive Psychology in Cancer Care: Bad Science, Exaggerated Claims, and Unproven Medicine, Annals of Behavioral Medicine,

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