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Hope and Cancer


Norman Cousins

Norman Cousins

reported on a UCLA study in which a research team launched a national survey of cancer specialists, asking their opinions of which personality attributes most contributed to improved medical outcomes. A total of 649 oncologists responded, reporting on their experiences in treating more than a hundred thousand cancer patients. More than 90 percent of the respondents reported that they found an attitude of hope and optimism to be the attribute of patients most associated with the best medical outcomes. 

 For this reason, oncologists need to deliver diagnoses in ways that instill hope. For example, if a particular diagnosis carries a 95% fatality rate, the physician should point out that 5% have beaten the odds, and then explain that “You may be able to be in that 5%.” Doctors say they don’t want to give false hope, but hope improves immune function, whereas lack of hope leads to despair, which is associated with depressed immune function.

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2 Responses to Hope and Cancer

  1. Molly March 3, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    The importance of hope is real, as you point out. I think that the communication of a new diagnosis is such a critical time for how the person responds. I wish there were more training in the medical field on this. I just saw a patient who had been diagnosed with breast cancer; although it was very treatable, she heard the word “cancer” and went into shock mode. I wish the physician had been more careful about how she explained the diagnosis (and the physician herself said this afterward, too). It’s a fine line between falsely giving hope and not addressing death (a seemingly taboo topic) and not giving the person a chance to boost their immune system through hope, like the research you found.

    • Larry Berkelhammer March 3, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

      Molly, I agree with you about the need for more training in medical school on how to deliver a frightening diagnosis in ways that inspire hope. Physicians are not taught about all the unexplained and unexpected recoveries from advanced cancers and other serious conditions. If they were more aware of the details of what those unusual patients did to recover, perhaps they would be better equipped to deliver diagnoses in more helpful ways, and there would be more patients recovering unexpectedly.

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