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The Mind Cannot Beat Cancer

Mind-myth 9: Two widely publicised studies have contributed to the myth that the biological progress of cancer can be effectively battled with the power of the mind. Unfortunately these studies – one at Stanford and one at UCLA – have been heavily criticised and subsequent research has failed to back them up.

The headline result of the Stanford study, published in 1989 seemed impressive. Women with metastatic breast cancer who took part in a support programme lived twice as long as the control group (Spiegel et al. 1989). Both groups were, of course, also receiving normal medical care for cancer.

It was the control group who had made the treatment look effective.Later examination of the results, though, revealed telling problems, which Barry Beyerstein and colleagues point out (Beyerstein et al., 2007). The major question-mark was over the control group, who were much more short-lived than would normally be expected. It turned out that the group who had taken part in the support programme had survived for about the average time: it was the control group who had made the treatment look effective.

The UCLA study, published in 1996, also appeared to have impressive results. They found that in melanoma patients, 92% of those given a social support intervention were still alive after 5 years, compared to only 72% of those who weren’t (Fawzy et al., 1993).

Closer inspection, though, revealed that this study might have been afflicted by the same problem as the Stanford study. It was the control group whose five-year survival rate was poorer than normal. The survival rate of those given the social support intervention was about average.

So, do it again…

Following these studies many other researchers tested the effects of psychological programmes on cancer patient survival. The results were generally much less clear-cut than the Stanford and UCLA studies. Indeed many found psychological interventions had no effect.

Most now accept that (unfortunately) psychological programmes have little or no direct effect on cancer survival rates.Eventually some of these studies were critically analysed together. This review covered data from 1,062 cancer patients who had taken part in 8 different studies (Edelman, Craig & Kidman, 2000). The results failed to show that psychological interventions made any difference to cancer survival whatsoever.

As a result of these, and other studies with negative findings, most researchers in this area have returned to assessing how psychological interventions are useful in helping people cope with their disease and adhere to their medical treatment plans. Most now accept that (unfortunately) psychological programmes have little or no direct effect on cancer survival rates.


[Image credit: Move The Clouds]


Beyerstein, B. L., Sampson, W. I., Stojanovic, Z., Handel, J. (2007) Can mind conquer cancer? In: S. D. Sala (Ed.). Tall tales about the mind and brain: separating fact from fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Edelman, S., Craig, A., & Kidman, A. D. (2000). Can psychotherapy increase the survival time of cancer patients? J Psychosom Res, 49(2), 149-56.

Fawzy, F. I., Fawzy, N. W., Hyun, C. S., Elashoff, R., Guthrie, D., Fahey, J. L., et al. (1993). Malignant melanoma. Effects of an early structured psychiatric intervention, coping, and affective state on recurrence and survival 6 years later. Archives of General Psychiatry, 50(9), 681-689.

Spiegel, D., Bloom, J., Kraemer, H., & Gottheil, E. (1989). Effect of psychosocial treatment on survival of patients with metastatic breast cancer. Lancet, 8668, 888-891.



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