In Brief

Some cancer patients seek out support groups and psychotherapy with the notion that improving their emotional states will extend their lives, says University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine psychologist James C. Coyne, PhD.

However, in a study in the journal Cancer, (Vol. 110, No. 11) Coyne and colleagues reported that emotional well-being in no way predicted survival among patients with head and neck cancer.

"If people want to go to a support group there are lots of advantages to it, such as a sense of belonging, but survival isn't one of them," says Coyne.

In the large-scale study conducted over nine years, Coyne and colleagues used baseline quality-of-life questionnaires to assess the well-being of 1,093 cancer patients. All participants were involved in clinical trials, which ensured uniformity of treatment and ruled out substantial health disparities in the sample. During the study, 646 patients died, and the research team found no relationship between their emotional well-being and cancer progression and death.

Though his findings strongly contradict the notion that a positive attitude is related to survival, the idea of "fighting" cancer is deeply rooted in our culture, says Coyne.

"It's the American way, that you can do it, you can fight it," he adds.

Based on the study results, Coyne believes it's important to not blame cancer patients who don't adopt an aggressively positive spirit.

"We want to recognize thatthere are lots of individual differences in coping with cancer," he says. "People have to do what's comfortable with them, but they have to do it without the burden of thinking they've got to have the right attitudeto survive."

-E. Packard