What a wonderful world it would be if cancer patients could extend their survival time by mobilizing their immune systems by eating the right foods, practicing yoga, and venting their emotions in a support group. The idea that patients can enlist their immune systems to fight the progression of cancer is deeply entrenched in psychosomatic medicine and the imagination of the lay public, and evidence to the contrary has been sometimes bitterly resisted. Of course, cancer patients can use psychological techniques to relieve stress or find emotional relief in support groups and thereby improve the quality of their lives. But the prospect of being able to improve the quality of life pales in comparison to the promise of being able actually to extend life.
The hope that psychosocial intervention extends lives attracts philanthropic contributions to cancer centers and justifies research programs to determine just how psychological processes affect cancer. It is a lot easier to obtain funding if we promise to slow progression of cancer than if we merely claim to offer patients solace and support or to be study ways to reduce stress and improve emotional well-being.
No mechanism by which the mind can alter the course of cancer has been convincingly demonstrated. But the jury was still out until the late 2000s, when well-resourced, carefully designed trials — with survival as the primary endpoint — repeatedly failed to show that psychological interventions were effective. My colleagues and I asked at the 2006 European Health Psychology Conference whether we could “Bury the Idea…” that psychotherapy could extend lives of cancer patients, and this was followed by our systematic review of the available data, “The Conflict Between Hope and Evidence.” Investigators who had undertaken ambitious, well-designed trials to test the efficacy of psychosocial interventions echoed with “Letting Go of Hope” and “Time to Move on.” For some of us, to make claims in earshot of cancer patients that we could extend their lives with psychotherapy was perpetuating a cruel hoax.