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Myths about mental attitude, stress, ‘miracle cures’ and cancer

An interview with Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Columbia University oncologist and author of the 2011 Pulitzer-Prize winning “biography” of cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies,” appeared in the British newspaper The Guardian over the weekend.

Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee has been awarded the Guardian's First Book award for his 'biography' of cancer.
Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee has been awarded the Guardian’s First Book award for his ‘biography’ of cancer.

The newspaper has just awarded Mukherjee its Guardian First Book award.

In the article, Mukherjee debunks three of the biggest public myths about cancer. One is the belief that a person’s mental attitude can alter the course of his or her disease. Another is that stress causes cancer. And the third is that people have been miraculously cured of cancer by a particular supplement or dietary change (fruit juice! wheatgrass! garlic!).

All three of these myths are emotionally harmful — “nasty,” in Mukerjee’s words —because they place the blame for the disease (or its bad outcome) on something the individual with cancer did (or didn’t) do.

A disservice to patients
“It’s not true,” Mukherjee told Guardian reporter Decca Aitkenhead, that individuals develop — or die — of cancer because they have a negative mental attitude.

“In a spiritual sense, a positive attitude may help you get through chemotherapy and surgery and radiation and what have you,” Mukherjee said. “But a positive mental attitude does not cure cancer — any more than a negative mental attitude causes cancer.”

“I think it does a nasty disservice to patients,” he added “A woman with breast cancer already has her plate full, and you want to go and tell her that the reason you’re not getting better is because you’re not thinking positively? Put yourself in that woman’s position and think what it feels like to be told your attitude is to blame for why you’re not getting better. I think it’s nasty.”

An oversimplication
Another widely held misconception out there is that stress causes cancer.

“There’s a role of the immune system in cancer, but it’s not as simple as people make out,” said Mukherjee. “It’s not as if you get stressed, your immune system gets depressed, and all of a sudden you get cancer. Some cancers are more affected by it, such as lymphomas. But others — for example breast cancer — have very little to do with the immune system. There’s no evidence that stress gives you breast cancer.”

And what about all the “miracle” stories of people who cured their cancer by going on a highly specialized diet or taking some kind of supplement?

“We know there are spontaneous remissions in cancer. It’s very well documented,” said Mukherjee. “Many cancers are chronic remitting relapsing diseases — that’s their very nature. And human beings are pattern-recognizing apes. It’s the secret of our success; we recognize patterns. So we induce patterns; we have an unbelievably inductive imagination, and we say to ourselves, if the sun rose in the east for the last 365 days it must rise in the east tomorrow. So we typically indulge in inductive rather than deductive reasoning. It’s very successful. But the problem with pattern recognition in this context is that it can become flawed. You might have a chronic remitting relapsing cancer and imagine it’s remitting because you’re drinking apple juice. But I don’t think it’s true. I think you’re having a chronic remitting relapsing cancer — and that’s the nature of your cancer.”

“Maybe there are miracle substances out there that change the behavior of particular cancers,” he added. “But history suggests to us that we have to be skeptics here. If it was so simple then it would have been solved a long time ago.”

You can read the full interview on the Guardian website.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ian Clements on 12/05/2011 - 12:49 pm.

    Whilst I am not unsympathetic to Muskhajee’s comments, he undermines his own case when he says “We know there are spontaneous remissions in cancer. It’s very well documented,” and “But I don’t think it’s true.” This, alas, is an all too common dogmatic view amongst doctors.

    First, by saying “We know there are spontaneous remissions in cancer. It’s very well documented,” he is begging the very basis of alternative cures. This statement is, in effect, saying “We doctors did not cure this patient; something else did. But we will not examine why. But it is nothing that the patient did” How would they know if it is not researched (and it isn’t)?

    Second, saying “But I don’t think it’s true.” shows this is just an assertion without evidence – one hopes that doctors use evidence-based judgements (altho all too-often they don’t).

    Again “Maybe there are miracle substances out there that change the behavior of particular cancers,” he added. “But history suggests to us that we have to be skeptics here. If it was so simple then it would have been solved a long time ago.” is dismissive of the masses of evidence to the contrary. The medical profession is generally unwilling to look at anything that does not derive from within; and even then, only within their own specialism. There are many medical research papers about cancer remissions or cures, especially in non-USA countries, which are ignored for years before being only very slowly taken up (in all countries, I may add). The list is too long to go into detail, so a few examples will have to suffice: hypethermia, pulsing electric currents.

    More importantly, there are many evidence-based lifestyle changes that will increase cancer patients survival times that are usually not told to them by their doctors. There are five simple things:
    exercise, preferably 30″ short bursts each day
    reduce any overweight
    supplement with 5,000IU Vit.D3/day
    take a tablespoonful of Omega-3 oil/day
    eat lots of fresh fruit (preferably berries) and veggies, including juicing a cup-ful a day.
    My views are based on having been diagnosed with terminal bladder cancer and only given weeks to live – 4+ years ago by four expert doctors. As a retired scientist I was able to refute this; I am not saying all orthodox medicine is wrong (I eventually had chemo, having initially been told it was no use). For more detail see my blog

  2. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/05/2011 - 07:29 pm.

    Ian, this article was really written for someone like you, but you seem to have completely missed the point. The quote that you seem to be hung up on – that “he doesn’t think its true” – is not based on some dogmatic belief, but rather becasue Mukherjee is relying on actual evidence. Things like hyperthermia and pulsing electric currents have shown some promise among mixed results, but are far from “masses of evidence” of a cancer cure. And the idea that taking berries or Omega 3 oil to fight cancer is “evidence based” is just false, and part of the “miracle” type stories he is trying to debunk.

  3. Submitted by Tim Walker on 12/06/2011 - 09:18 am.

    I often re-read to this article whenever I hear about miracle cures:


    (same article, shorter link)

    It really spells out the many ways one can fool oneself when relying on anecdotal data.

    Also, I was once gobsmacked when I was talking to the mother of a bone marrow transplant recipient, who claimed that her daughter was cured not by the donated blood stem cells that replaced her immune system and wiped out her leukemic cells — but by … wheatgrass!

    Our schools are really doing a poor job of teaching critical thinking skills.

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