Positive Outlook May Not Prolong Life in Cancer Fight

Researcher repeats groundbreaking study and changes attitude.

ByABC News
July 23, 2007, 5:55 PM

July 23, 2007 — -- On the third Thursday of every month, a group of women gather at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, Ill. They sip tea out of china cups, nibble on cookies and share some of their worst moments.

"I'm Elaine, and I'm just starting to deal with cancer," says a white-haired woman whose husband has come along for support at the session sponsored by the national organization Y-Me.

She asks about the side effects of the chemotherapy her doctor has prescribed. Nearly everyone at this table can offer an answer.

To her left, Carol, a perky woman with a broad smile, talks about her diagnosis of breast cancer -- a relatively rare form that did not show up on her mammogram.

"I'm stage four," she says." I'm living with breast cancer and don't think I'll ever be out of treatment."

Support groups like this one are at the core of modern breast cancer care, helping women cope with a life-changing diagnosis. But beyond offering information and psychological support, new research questions how much talking about the disease and focusing on a positive outlook help someone beat the disease.

Eighteen years ago, Dr. David Spiegel of Stanford University Medical Center conducted a groundbreaking study that found that women with metastatic breast cancer who shared their problems and listened to those of others thought more positively about their own chances of survival and lived an average of 18 months longer than those who didn't get group support.

That study virtually jump-started the support-group movement and helped generate talk of a mind-body connection for cancer treatment.

"I think there has evolved over this past decade the sense that you've got to think positive to beat cancer," said Jimmie Holland, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

Others had been unable to duplicate Spiegel's findings. But recently Spiegel repeated his original study -- this time with surprising results. He found group therapy and positive thinking appeared not to be significant factors in a patient's life span.