Alberta Cancer Foundation

Mind Over Matter?

I’m pleased to have the chance to regularly discuss issues around mind-body medicine in cancer, and thought for this first issue it would be helpful to address, and hopefully dispel, some of the common myths around the role of the mind and attitudes in cancer.

Many of you may have come across books or websites that talk about how you can cure cancer simply with the power of your mind, through positive thinking or other techniques such as meditation or visualization.

I am the last person to dismiss the power of the mind-body connection, and while there are many things you can do to improve your chances, it’s a vast oversimplification to think you can rid yourself of cancer simply by willing it away. It also carries the consequence of blaming the patient for contracting cancer in the first place, putting pressure on people to become “perfect” patients, to the point where if they don’t manage to conquer the illness, somehow it’s their fault for not trying hard enough. Dealing with the stresses of cancer is difficult enough without this added burden.

As you are likely aware, cancer is not just one disease: it is a family of many complex diseases with multiple causes. Things such as genetic vulnerability and environmental exposures including toxins, viruses and pollutants, as well as lifestyle factors including smoking, diet and exercise are all important. There are other factors involved in contracting cancer that even the cancer biologists and geneticists still don’t understand. So, while mind-body reactions, attitudes and managing the stress response may also be important factors in this equation, they are by no means solely responsible for the development of cancer.

What we do know about the effect of the mind on the body is that the two are inextricably inter-connected. It is a fallacy to even refer to mind and body separately, as every state of mind has a corresponding bodily reaction. The term “bodymind” is often used. When you are anxious or stressed, a cascade of hormones is released into your circulatory and nervous systems and physical changes follow. Your heart races, blood pressure increases and your palms get sweaty when you encounter a situation you find threatening. This “fight or flight” response is adaptive for short-term acute stressors, but can be damaging over time if it becomes chronically activated.

So, what can you do about it? There are many techniques and programs that are helpful for learning to manage stress and difficult emotions. You may have heard that it’s important to have a “positive attitude” in order to fight cancer. Maybe, but this can’t be something you just force yourself to put on when you really feel scared, angry or depressed. The worst thing you can do is deny or suppress these difficult emotions. The healthiest thing for your bodymind is to freely express whatever emotions you are experiencing, whether they are positive or negative. It is only by recognizing these roller-coaster emotions, and allowing them to run their course, that you can reach a place of true peace, calm and optimism for the future.

This column will be dedicated to bringing to you some of the techniques that we use with patients and that we are researching at Alberta Health Services Cancer Care and through the provincial universities. We have already conducted studies investigating the usefulness of programs including meditation, yoga, exercise, acupuncture, Reiki, support groups and other popular mind-body therapies. We are dedicated to investigating these, and other, therapies from a scientific viewpoint, in order to help weed out the least useful therapies from others that may offer more promise. Our goal is to help patients find useful avenues to direct their efforts. Stay tuned for more details.

Linda Carlson is the Enbridge Chair in Psychosocial Oncology at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, a professor and a clinical psychologist at the University of Calgary and the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and co-author of Mindfullness-Based Cancer Recovery: A Mbsr Approach to Help You Cope With Treatment and Reclaim Your Life.