Learning you have cancer is a traumatic event and can cause a significant emotional burden for you and your family. This emotional turbulence not only persists throughout treatment but may continue well after treatment even if the patient experiences remission or a cure.
Depression and anxiety are common responses to this upheaval. In fact, depression and anxiety are two to three times more prevalent in cancer patients than in the general public. In a paper published September 23, 2019, in the journal Trends in Cancer, experts identified that targeting cancer patients’ mindsets could have an impact on their health, functioning, and well being. They, in turn, called for more research in this field. “We spend millions of dollars every year trying to cure and prevent cancer,” says co-author Alia Crum (@AliaCrum), a psychologist at Stanford University. “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.”
A person’s core beliefs about the world create their mindset. They are not necessarily true nor are necessarily they false, but they do affect how a person thinks and their behavior. That is why people have very different mindsets about what this means for their life going forward after receiving a cancer diagnosis.
Recognizing the link with the mind has become common thinking, but researchers are just starting to look into which mindsets impact the health of a patient with cancer.
The article in Trends in Cancer looks at two specific mindsets that may impact cancer patients, specifically their health. One mindset looked at the diagnosis as a catastrophic event, and the other mindset looked at the diagnosis as an opportunity. They paired those mindsets together with the mindsets of associating the body either as a friend or foe. Researchers believe that if a patient shifts their mindset that it could completely alter their experience.
Viewing cancer as manageable and recognizing the body as capable and resilient may motivate patients to participate in activities and initiate lifestyle changes like eating healthier and getting exercise. Patients may become less afraid of side effects from treatment and cancer recurrence afterward. “We are not talking about positive thinking here,” Crum says. “Having a 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.”
“Cancer clinicians do what they can to provide guidance and support and reassurance to help patients and to deal with difficulties,” says co-author Lidia Schapira (@l_schapira), a practicing oncologist at Stanford University. “But that doesn’t mean that they’re delivering any sophisticated mental health interventions.”
Researchers suggest that “wise interventions,” which means they are timely and context-sensitive, could be used to help cancer patients. Researchers are currently conducting experiments, which include controlled groups of cancer patients. Their goal is to obtain better data on how mindsets can affect cancer treatment outcome and a patient’s physiological health.
One of the benefits of these interventions is it doesn’t require in-person clinic visits says first author Sean Zion (@seanrzion), a doctoral student at Stanford University. “There have been so many advancements in digital health platforms in recent years. We think that one way to push this forward is by creating scalable mindset interventions that can be widely distributed to patients, the type that they can do at home on their own time, where they are comfortable taking in new information.”
“This research is still in its infancy,” says Crum. “But we are working hard to uncover the specific mindsets that may interfere with patients’ ability to be resilient in the midst of cancer, and more importantly, which specific mindsets can be cultivated that can improve their well-being. We are devoting blood, sweat, and tears to these questions because we believe that cancer patients deserve the most sophisticated psychological care.”