THE belief that a positive attitude can help fight cancer has been debunked by Australian specialists who have proved a fighting spirit does not improve survival chances.
The researchers said they realised their findings, presented at a major cancer conference in Chicago today, might not impress the majority of patients who believed their outlook could help their diagnosis, but said it could be good news too.
"People often really beat themselves up and blame their attitude if their cancer relapses," said Professor Kelly-Anne Phillips, a medical oncologist at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne.
"We've shown absolutely that you're not at fault. You cannot influence your cancer with positive or negative thinking, depression, a fighting spirit, or any other factor.
"That should be reassuring, but I guess it could cut both ways."
The study involved 708 women in the Australian Breast Cancer Family Study who had been newly diagnosed with localised breast cancer and tracked them over eight years to see whether their cancer relapsed.
A quarter died over the period.
Levels of depression, anxiety and other factors like fatalist outlook, avoidance, anger, and feelings of hopelessness were also assessed.
"Essentially the bottom line is we didn't find any correlation at all between these issues and whether their cancer came back," Prof Phillips said.
"This goes against what the vast majority of patients believe."
Women who had an anxious preoccupation with their cancer were more likely to relapse but once the researchers adjusted for all the things known to cause recurrence, like size and grade of the tumour, this association disappeared, she said.
"The women who were anxiously preoccupied were the ones that had the worst tumours, so they were anxious and preoccupied for a reason," said Prof Phillips.
She said women may not like the news as it might make them feel like they have little control of their outcome, "but it's important to see the upside too".
Cancer Council Australia chief executive Professor Ian Olver said he had been involved in a smaller study in lung cancer that reached a similar conclusion.
"A positive attitude is great and it clearly helps quality of life when you're going through treatment but it makes an undetectable difference to disease," he said.