My Malignant Melanoma

Seanty's experiences with Metastatic Malignant Melanoma. Part of www.mymalignantmelanoma.com. Email us direct at help@mymalignantmelanoma.com

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

 

Bernie Siegel: Mind over Cancer?

A fellow cancer patient has written to ask me whether Bernie Siegel is Kosher or Quack. Let's have a look at what Quackwatch have to say:

"Various psychologic methods are being promoted to cancer patients as cures or adjuncts to other treatment. The techniques include imagery, visualization, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and various forms of psychotherapy. These techniques may reduce stress, alleviate depression, help control pain, and enhance patients' feelings of mastery and control. Individual and group support can have a positive impact on quality of life and overall attitude. A positive attitude may increase a patient's chance of surviving cancer by increasing compliance with proven treatment. However, it has not been demonstrated that emotions directly influence the course of the disease.

Bernie Siegel, M.D., author of "Love, Medicine & Miracles" and "Peace, Love & Healing", claims that "happy people generally don't get sick" and that "one's attitude toward oneself is the single most important factor in healing or staying well." Siegel also states that "a vigorous immune system can overcome cancer if it is not interfered with, and emotional growth toward greater self-acceptance and fulfilment helps keep the immune system strong." However, he has published no scientific study supporting these claims.

A 10-year study co-authored by Siegel found that 34 breast cancer patients participating in his program did not live longer after diagnosis than comparable non-participants. The program consisted of weekly peer support and family therapy, individual counselling, and the use of positive imagery. In November 1998, Siegel sent a series of email messages to Dr. Barrett (who runs Quackwatch) in which he said that the study bearing his name had been done by a student and was improperly designed."

I think it would be more than fair to say that Siegel is making claims with no scientific foundation, which fly in the face of even his own research. This seems less than kosher to me.

The idea that attitude affects the course of cancer has been scientifically discredited for some time. As cancerbacup point out, whilst it has no beneficial effect the pressure to be positive can become an additional burden for a cancer patient.

There is some evidence that stress might have an effect on cancer progression, but that pressuring people with less sunny coping styles to be positive is stressful for them. This article discusses the research in question.

And then there are all of the studies (including Dr. Siegel's own one) which do not show the effect. Every one of these is a nail in the coffin of claims that it exists. Like so much pseudoscience, the harder you look, the less you see it.

But of course there are people for whom a positive mental attitude works wonders. The loved ones of the cancer patient. Perhaps this is why some of them are such fierce advocates of the PMA. Bad enough that their loved one is possibly dying, but do they really have to go on about it? Let's tell them that if they don't be a bit more positive they'll die sooner, that'll shut them up!

I'm sure that like myself, most cancer patients would like to take as positive and hopeful an attitude to their cancer, its treatment and prognosis as they can from moment to moment, as dictated by their normal coping style.

I'm sure that like me, they are as nice as they can be under the circumstances, and put on as brave a face as they can to protect their loved ones to the extent allowed by the emotional and physical resources available to them.

Having cancer is however a bit of a downer at times. Telling us to pull ourselves together is even less useful than it would be for someone suffering from depression. Telling us to be a bit more cheery on pain of death is less useful still.

Coming back to Dr Siegel, not only has he not proven that his ideas or "treatment" prolongs life, he has not proven that it makes people happier. He has not proven any one of his claims, but has in fact apparently personally supervised someone who has disproved them. He has no evidence to support his claims, but does has evidence to show that his personally supervised programme is worse than useless. Yet he does not retract any of his claims.

Is this fraud or quackery? I suppose that that decision depends on the precise definition of the words you are employing. We can however be pretty clear that this is not acting as a scientist or as an effective medical practitioner.

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Comments:
Sean,

Tricky one this, eh?

While there's no evidence to show that a positive mental attitude (or whatever one wants to call it) helps; nor is there any evidence to show it hinders.

All I know is that when Claire has a "positive head" on, she seems much brighter. The question is "which is the cause, and which is the effect?"

Also, it's difficult to understand how to measure "pressure" to be positive. Some days we can try an approach and she'll "buck up" - using the same approach on another day "cheeses her off".

So I'm minded to say that this approach, on balance, has been proven to do neither good nor bad.

Consequently, I'm not keen to call this person a fake (as some people might benefit from it) and I don't have any evidence to say he's going harm anyone either - except, perhaps through their wallets. But, then again, some will pay money AND feel better for it.

What d'ya reckon?

Gary
 
People have the attitude they have. There IS evidence to show that trying to get someone to act out of character is unhelpful. I'm off out, will write more later.
 
I couldn't agree with you more, Sean. I do not suffer from cancer, but I do suffer from depression. When people tell me to pull myself together, I wanna say go **** yourselves, to put it bluntly.

My father died of cancer and people with their forced positive attitude near his death drove me crazy.

Gary, I think there is a difference between what you say and what Siegel says. You are talking about trying to make someone with cancer feel better by concentrating on the positives, which is exactly what you should do. Siegel seems to suggest that positive thinking "cures" cancer, which adds anxiety to those that feel down and depressed, and can only think about death, and they might think that they have less chance healing due to their attitude.
Actually the worst one is when they say "if you turn your feelings inwards/bury them, you'll get cancer" and "if you worry about cancer you'll pull it in" - what a total nonsense.
 
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