Can Positive Mindset Help Cancer Treatment Outcomes?

Can Positive Mindset Help Cancer Treatment Outcomes?

My dad had cancer before I was born. He was given a rock from a reporter that he knew who said it was special. My dad carried it in his pocket for years as a good luck charm. It turned out to be radioactive that caused him cancer of the muscle in his leg beneath his pocket.

My parents moved up their wedding since they didn’t know if he would survive. He had surgery and now has half his muscle mass in his leg gone. He survived and I and my three sisters were born. My best friend is recovering from breast cancer and another friend died from breast cancer in her 30’s … she was pregnant when the diagnosis came and had to abort. She died several months later. I used to stay with her at night so she wasn’t alone.

So I know, Cancer diagnosis causes a significant amount of emotional burden not only on the patient but their family too. Survivorship may be a lengthy journey. Therefore, patients often experience bouts of anxiety, stress, and even depression. Research suggests that anxiety and depression are at least three times more common in cancer patients compared to the general population. Hence, physicians and experts propose targeting patients’ mindsets to ensure a healthy mind, positively impacting their overall health, wellbeing, and functioning. In this post, we will find out why a positive mindset is essential to overcome cancer-related stress and anxiety.

The Mind-Body Connection

Mindset refers to the core assumptions all of us hold regarding almost everything in life, from the world in general to our surroundings and self in particular. When facing an adverse situation like a cancer diagnosis, it is natural to develop negative perceptions about oneself and life as the person starts having doubts about their survival. When diagnosed with cancer, people can have different mindsets about life, which are usually negative and unrealistic. Such a negative mindset affects the patients’ ability to think and behave. Experts suggest maintaining optimal mental health as it influences a person’s physical health tremendously.

There is an undeniable connection between the human mind and the body. Their link has been well-established by advances in psychology and neuroscience. So, when a person learns they have cancer, often they cannot control themselves thinking on these lines:

  • What did I do wrong in my life to bring cancer to myself?
  • Will I live a long life?
  • What can I do to live a longer life?
  • Why me?
  • No one and nothing can help me out.
  • Life will not be the same after the treatment.
  • Is the treatment reliable? Will I survive?

These are all common queries that keep plaguing the minds of cancer patients, and they cannot help feeling stuck in life. That’s where mindset changes can play an instrumental role in improving the patient’s mental health. 

How can Stress Make Cancer Symptoms Worse?

As mentioned above, cancer diagnosis itself and the subsequent treatment tend to be such a traumatic experience that a person is forced to develop a negative mindset and feel stressed, anxious, and depressed. Research suggests that stress and depression can worsen the patients’ chances of survival by contributing to disease progression. Chronic stress is often experienced by cancer patients and can have devastating health outcomes. Studies have revealed that chronic stress is powerful enough to affect every biological system in our bodies.

Untreated chronic stress speeds up the aging process via telomere shortening, which increases the person’s risk for developing heart diseases, sleep issues, digestive issues, and depression. In addition to this, stress causes patients to avoid exercise and forego healthy eating habits, which are the key to successful cancer treatment and further prevention.

Importance of Positive Mindset:

It is vital to have a positive attitude to improve the chances of curing cancer. Research reveals that keeping a positive approach towards life cannot change the patient’s course of cancer, but it can help them deal with the situation better and enjoy sound mental health. If a person stays stress-free by developing a positive mindset, they will sleep well at night, and their body will be more prepared for and receptive to cancer treatment.

Psychological health can positively and negatively impact an individual’s biological health, so it is important to address stress and anxiety at the earliest. Ignoring these issues and not discussing them will worsen the health condition and make the patient feel isolated, making it harder to cope with the situation.

In a 2019 perspective paper by Zion et al., published in Trends in Cancer journal, experts suggested that targeting cancer patients’ mindsets can have a substantial, positive impact on their overall physical health and wellbeing. The study is titled Targeting Mindsets, Not Just Tumors. Its co-author and a psychologist at Stanford University, Alia Crum, noted that cancer isn’t only a physical disease, so there is no point restricting its treatment to physical systems.

“We spend millions of dollars every year trying to cure and prevent cancer… but cancer is more than a physical disease. As we strive to target malignant cells with the latest cutting-edge treatments, we should simultaneously strive to provide equally precise treatments for the psychological and social ramifications of the illness.”

Experts argued that empowering patients is the key to successful cancer treatment and shifting their mindsets is pivotal in achieving that. Instead of viewing cancer as a catastrophic event in one’s life, considering it as a manageable disease and assuming that your body is capable of dealing with it can motivate patients to initiate productive lifestyle changes, such as eating healthier and exercising regularly. As they maintain a positive approach while getting treated for cancer, they become less scared of its side effects and recurrence afterward.

“Having the mindset such as cancer is manageable or even an opportunity does not mean that cancer is a good thing or you should be happy about it. However, the mindset that ‘cancer is manageable’ can lead to more productive ways of engaging with cancer than the mindset that ‘cancer is a catastrophe.’ What we hope for patients is to inspire them to think about the impact of their mindsets and give them skills to adopt more useful mindsets themselves,” writes Crum.

Mind-Body Practices for a Positive Mindset:

Engaging patients in behaviors that reduce sympathetic arousal and increases parasympathetic arousal is critical to address the damaging effects of stress among cancer patients. In other words, they must learn to stay relaxed in stressful situations. In this regard, mind-body techniques are ideal for managing stress, anxiety, and feelings of distress.

Understanding Mind-Body Practices!

You might want to understand the concept behind mind-body techniques. These are simple healing practices dating back thousands of years and help modify physiological, biological, and psychological processes to improve an individual’s physical/mental health.

For instance, in Chinese, Greek, Tibetan, and Ayurvedic traditional medicine and other alternative medication traditions of the world, the role of mind, behaviors, and emotions in personal wellbeing is fundamental. The National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has combined mind and body therapies in one category, including meditation, tai chi, yoga, and qigong.

These are tried-and-tested mind-based techniques to manage stress, but the scope of such practices is vast as it also includes music, art, and dance-based therapies and journaling in the same category. Body-based techniques include acupuncture, Pilates, massage therapy, spinal manipulation, Alexander technique, and Feldenkrais.

In order to manage cancer-related stress and distress, meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong are the best mind-based practices as these can be performed in a seated position.


It is an ancient practice and part of most spiritual traditions in the world. Meditation is defined as a “wakeful hypometabolic physiologic state” where the practitioner develops feelings of relaxation and becomes more alert and focused.

Though meditation methods vary greatly, most methods share standard features such as focused attention, controlled breathing, controlling feelings/emotions/thoughts, and releasing negative energy.

Yoga, Tai Chi, and Qigong

Whether you study the Indian medical traditions, Tibetan or Chinese, you will find Yoga a part of almost every culture. Tai Chi and Qigong are typical Chinese practices that resemble Tibetan and Indian yoga practices. The practice typically combines physical movements and postures, including meditation and breathing techniques to improve health and wellbeing. Collectively, these practices contribute to enhancing mental health and developing a positive mindset.

Regarding cancer, the impact of yoga and similar mind-body practices has remained the focus of extensive research over the years. In a multi-center study, 410 cancer survivors experiencing moderate to extreme sleep difficulties underwent an 8-session yoga intervention. They felt improvement in sleep quality, and their reliance on sleep medications was substantially reduced.

In another smaller trial conducted by Bower et al. in 2011, yoga was declared an effective treatment option to manage cancer treatment-related fatigue in breast cancer survivors who complained of persistent fatigue. 

Final Thoughts!

Mind-body practices can positively impact our body systems and may even help in reversing the harmful effects of cancer-related stress. These practices impact neurotransmitters like GABA and glutamate and neuromodulators including epinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These components are essential to maintain a healthy balance between parasympathetic and sympathetic arousal and manage our body’s stress response.  So, it is important to help cancer patients develop a positive mindset so as to be able to better deal with the situation and enhance their quality of life.