Positive thinking won't cure cancer.





Years ago I worked at a company that was trialling an experimental drug for terminal lung cancer. The drug was vastly expensive and not particularly effective – less than 50 per cent of patients responded, and even among responders it extended life only by a few months. Even so, patients who had exhausted all their options – or rather, their families – were pounding at our doors to get hold of it.

In the internet age nothing stays secret for long and soon families whose relatives were dying of cancers other than those of the lung also started calling us, desperate for this drug. There was no legal way we could give them the medication but some family members persisted and would ring to harangue us on a daily basis.

One particular man struck a nerve. His wife was dying of breast cancer and had only weeks to live – a tragedy for their young family. But during one of his calls the husband revealed an even greater tragedy. This deeply religious woman’s cancer had been diagnosed early, when it was treatable and potentially curable, but she had refused surgery and chemotherapy and instead decided to rely on the ”power of prayer” to cure herself.

Prayer alone did not cure her. By the time her family decided to embrace modern medicine, it was too late.


My colleagues and I were sympathetic, but couldn’t help feeling that this woman’s decision was misguided, almost arrogant. Christianity has been around for 2000 years and devout Christians have been dying of cancer and other diseases for just as long. So why did this woman think her prayers would be answered, when those of others clearly hadn’t been? We can’t ask her to explain because she died.

What brought this to mind was the revelation in Walter Isaacson’s recent biography Steve Jobs that the late co-founder of Apple delayed having surgery for his slow-growing and potentially curable pancreatic cancer for nine months, electing to rely on spiritual healing and alternative therapies to rid him of the disease. He’s reported to have later regretted this decision, seeming to acknowledge that it may have cost him years, if not his life.

Jobs may have consulted a different deity to the Christian woman, but his ”treatment” methods seem equally misguided.

It struck me as curious that a man who was a major driver of technological progress in the world, when faced with his own health challenges, rejected the advances of modern medicine in favour of herbal remedies and Eastern mysticism, which from where I sit haven’t been wholly successful at ridding the world of cancer. He was obviously a man of prodigious intellect and immense self-belief. Did that self-belief ultimately prove destructive, as he succumbed to the magical thinking that he could purge his body of cancer simply through the power of the mind?


As someone who has worked at the coalface, I know only too well the deficiencies of modern healthcare. But the facts speak for themselves. At the beginning of the 20th century, life expectancy was 55 years for males and 59 years for females. By 2004-06 it was 79 years and 84 years for males and females, respectively.

When we look specifically at cancer, over the period 1982-2004 five-year survival rates have risen from 41 to 58 per cent in males and from 53 to 64 per cent in females. Overall, the death rate from cancer has fallen 16 per cent.

No one is arguing that cancer treatment offers all the answers, least of all the professionals who work in the area. Patients have to endure the surgeon’s scalpel, the impositions and potential complications of radiotherapy, the intractable nausea and fatigue of chemotherapy.

But the results are there for all to see: the chance of cure for some lucky individuals, the possibility of extra years or months for others.

Some cancers in particular have shown big improvements in survival: non-Hodgkin lymphoma and kidney cancer, breast cancer in women and prostate cancer in men. Others remain stubbornly resistant to treatment, notably pancreatic cancer, Jobs’s particular illness, which has a miserly 5 per cent five-year survival rate. However, that is partially because it’s usually diagnosed late, when nothing much can be done. Job’s cancer was picked up early, on a routine scan. So after being handed the health equivalent of winning the lottery, what does he do? He consults a spiritual guru. I don’t get it.


There is no doubt that our mind, or thoughts, are powerful. Cognitive behaviour therapy, for instance, is a very effective treatment for anxiety and depression.

But to think we can cure ourselves of cancer simply through spirituality or positive thinking is dangerous and delusional. Is this the ultimate extension of the pop psychology perpetuated by Oprah and that idiotic book, The Secret – that anything is within our grasp if we just want it enough? Well, it’s not, especially when it comes to our health.

That’s not to say spirituality doesn’t help people cope with cancer. The American Cancer Society again: ”An analysis of 43 studies on people with advanced cancer noted that those who reported spiritual well-being were able to cope more effectively with terminal illnesses and find meaning in their experience.”

Surely that’s the key – to use spirituality and positive thinking not to ”order” good health like it’s on a takeaway menu but to give us the strength of character to cope with our illness, our treatment and when the time comes, they might even help us face our maker reconciled to our fate.

This post originally appeared in The SMH and was published with full permission from the author.

Benison Amy has degrees in pharmacy and commerce and most recently worked as a medical writer. She is also the author of Happily Ever After which you can purchase Happily Ever After and will shortly have a new book to add to the collection, a collaboration with Seana and Catherine Knox called Beyond the Baby Blues, a much needed guide to perinatal anxiety and depression.

Where do you stand on the power of positive thinking?