The Mind and Cancer

Faith is a fine Invention
For gentlemen who see;
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency!
Emily Dickinson

The brain is connected to every part of the body by means of a network of nerves. These nerves carry signals from brain to body, and body to brain. Impulses coming to the brain are interpreted by the brain as touch, pain, pleasure, and so forth. If you hit your finger with a hammer, the finger does not feel the pain, the brain does; or if you wish, you do. A person with the nerves from the finger to the brain severed will not feel pain when the finger is injured. Since the brain is the "control center," everything that affects the body affects the brain and vice versa. Two aspirin tablets can have a profound effect upon how one feels, without influencing the course of a disease. What aspirin does is effect the way that pain is either transmitted or perceived. Just as aspirin can attenuate pain and make one feel better, so can hypnotism, confidence in one's doctor, a zest for living, and a wide variety of things which effect the perception of pain and pleasure. Like aspirin, these mental states will probably not appreciably alter the course of a disease.

Much has been written about the importance of "a will to live." I know of no convincing objective evidence that a "will to live" can prolong life. The subjective findings that people with a "will to live" often live until the will to live disappears could just as easily be explained by postulating that this "will to live" merely vanishes with impending death. The "will to die" may be another story, and people who want to die may be able to bring it off by a variety of means.
Children often believe that their thoughts can control life and death. They believe that if they wish someone dead that it will happen; and that if they wish it, they and others could live forever. Sometimes this fantasy gets into the medical literature disguised as science. I have to constantly guard against my own illusion of omnipotence and the fact that I tend to believe what I want to believe. There is a lot to be learned about mind over matter, and I am waiting for reliable data; not fantasy.

It is certain that a will to live and a zest for life affects the quality of one's life very profoundly. Whether or not it affects the quantity is a matter of conjecture.

Skillful psychotherapy can help incurably ill people and their families deal with illness and impending death, and can help people to more fully enjoy their remaining days together. Even people in the terminal stages of illness can be helped to feel better by using fantasy techniques, and by simply listening and conversing. When they are beyond benefiting from these things, then it is time for the physician's armamentarlum of narcotizing drugs.

It is important to emphasize that there is nothing either new or magical about this and that it does not stop the course of the disease. No one has, to my knowledge, been cured of metastatic cancer by faith or psychotherapv. If it were possible, then psychiatrists would know how to live longer than the rest of us; and they haven't managed to do that; nor have faith healers.

Lung cancer may be preventable by anything which will induce someone not to smoke cigarettes. If psychologists and psychiatrists have an urge to "save lives," here might be a good place to start.

Since the quality of life may well be more important than its quantity, anything that makes an incurably ill person feel better is a good thing. What I mean by "anything" includes psychotherapy, food, friendship, drugs, and so on. (I do not include things that hurt the survivors.)

The author of a recent best-selling book on psychology was quoted by a magazine as saying that "the treatment will work if the patient has faith in it." This is quite true. Treatments in which faith is the only ingredient have been successful in making people feel better and in healing psychosomatic diseases. It is a good idea for the customer to shop around a bit, because the price of "faith" is quite variable. Some people do not believe that "cheap" faith can be as good as the high-priced variety. This is not true; the faith purchased by the wealthy is not a bit better than that purchased by the poor. In fact, the child, who owns nothing, usually has the best faith of all. There are often better remedies than faith: you don't have to have faith in penicillin or insulin or surgery for it to work. Faith should only be counted upon when all else has failed.

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