Health professionals and psychologists alike are more and more beginning to understand the powerful link between the mind and body, and how our thoughts can directly effect our health. This has given rise to a whole new model of patient-doctor interactions and even the development of a new school of ‘health psychology’. But can our thoughts really our bodies to the point where we can use them to aid in recovery from illnesses like cancer, and is it moral or responsible to suggest that practices such as ‘cancer affirmations’ can be so powerful? Or are their effects decidedly more subtle though still valid?
Cancer affirmations consist of positive and direct statements regarding the state of the condition and the patient’s ability to cope. For example they may sound like: ‘I am in control of my cancer, it is not in control of me’, ‘Cancer is a reversible disease and I am going to drive it out of my system’, ‘I am a strong individual and able to cope’ or ‘I control my body and I command it to target and eliminate cancerous cells’. The patient would then repeat these affirmations regularly and ‘drive’ them into their own psyche. This would then cause them to begin thinking positively and determinedly about their cancer naturally and over time they would begin to strongly believe the statements. The thought then is that this can then ‘instruct’ the body to heal itself, help the individual to cope psychologically and result in positive changes to the individual’s hormones and immune system.
First it’s important to understand how such a link between the mind and body might operate, and there are many legitimate ways in which our thoughts can alter our health. The concept of being able to ‘instruct’ the body to heal is one that has no scientific founding however. It is true that our mind does control our body, but whether this could be applied to its ability to cope with cancer is unknown. While it is certainly possible, such an effect has not been proven and patients should not expect cancer affirmations to ‘magically’ force cancer out of their systems.
On the other hand, the idea that these affirmations might make positive changes to our body’s ability to cope by increasing mood and outlook is far more feasible. Firstly our moods effect the cocktail of hormones in our system which play a crucial role in our mental and physical health. For example, if you experience a lot of stress (which is rather likely if you suffer from cancer) then you will release hormones such as adrenaline that put a strain on the body’s immune system and so obviously it is not conducive to recovery. Similarly this condition will leave you with a raised heartbeat and breathing rate which can worsen circulatory system diseases such as heart disease, angina, high blood pressure, stroke or heart attack. Feeling positive emotions on the other hand (by using cancer affirmations for example) can cause the release of endorphins which not only help counter the effects of stress, but also act as pain killers and boost the immune systems. In other words if you’re ‘down’ then all of your bodily functions are going to be sluggish and suppressed butt if you’re ‘up’ your immune system will be too. Through these mechanisms it is feasible that a patient might improve their ability to cope through positive affirmations.
Cancer however is not an illness caused by a virus and so the role of the immune system is minimal. Cancer is in fact cause by a mutation in your cells that prevents them from doing their job properly due to damage DNA. This can occur when the cell walls are worn down by free radicals etc which eventually break through and begin to batter the genetic code. As the cells then reproduce and spread through the body this faulty code is ‘copied’ around the body leaving fewer and fewer operational cells until the body can no longer cope. However the immune system can still help the body to deal with such an occurrence, for example ‘interferons’ (a naturally occurring cutokine and part of the immune system) can help the body to identify cancer as an undesirable mutation and then target the damaged and rapidly spreading cells. Positive affirmations then can help ease this process and boost its effectiveness, though any benefits are likely to be minimal.
However cancer affirmations also have have a variety of other benefits. Firstly, while the affirmations won’t help repair damaged cells, they may still help the patient to deal with the symptoms of the illness as well as the side effects caused by the treatment by acting as a pain killer. This is particularly important for cancer patients as the main treatment, chemotherapy, has many unpleasant side effects - working by targeting rapidly multiplying cells it is more than likely to damage many healthy cells in the process. In this sense they may be perceived to be working and will help make the experience as pleasant as possible.
Obviously cancer affirmations will also have psychological benefits and help the individual to feel ‘in control’ of their cancer and so less depressed as a result. At the same time it can help them to put their condition in perspective and realise that in many cases there is a very real chance of recovery. This is obviously a highly worthwhile effect and can help the patient to continue to enjoy their life rather than sink into a depressed state which will only serve to make matters worse for both them and their loved ones. It can also decrease the likelihood of suicide which is a very real threat for cancer patients.
As any health psychologist will tell you, ‘health beliefs’ also effect our ‘health behaviours’ resulting in a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Basically what this means is that the way we perceive our cancer will obviously be reflected in the way we try to deal with it. For example, if you have ‘abandoned hope’ then it’s unlikely you’ll put as much effort into taking your medication, avoiding unhealthy behaviours such as smoking and getting the amount of rest you need. On the other hand if you genuinely believe that you have the power to alter your fate then you’ll find that you put more work into your own recovery - researching things that can improve your chances, altering your diet and lifestyle and getting lots of rest.
Cancer affirmations are in a way very similar to placebos, and these work by the same mechanisms. Research surrounding placebos offers concrete evidence for our beliefs being able to effect our wellness which suggests that cancer affirmations can work by the same ticket. So they’re certainly worthwhile and as they’re so easy to use there’s really no reason not to introduce them into your coping techniques. On the other hand though you shouldn’t expect them to magically cure you and you should see them for what they are. Utilised alongside rest, a diet high in vitamins and fibre, the love and care of your family and friends and chemotherapy and any other treatment recommended by your doctors; cancer affirmations offer one part of a multi-pronged offensive that will give you the best possible chance of recovery.