Does the mind matter?

I received some feedback about a talk I gave recently. And while the large majority of people found the content of my talk enlightening (which I am thrilled about because this knowledge will go on to help even more people), there was someone who wasn’t too happy.

The feedback went something like this:

… when someone so strongly promotes mind over matter (cancer) there is the dangerous implication that one can control the course of the disease if the mind is strong enough…

Funny thing is in part I agree.

But at the same time… I believe that to deny the role of the mind is limited thinking – and just as dangerous.

We need to find the middle ground.

And really that’s about having an open mind. A mind that’s willing to learn. A mind that’s willing to see things from new perspectives. Because an open mind can be one of our greatest assets.

So here goes with finding the middle ground…

I’ll start with that old chestnut of positive thinking. Or mind over matter.

When somebody tells me to think positive or pushes mind over matter I too run a mile. And it’s definitely not something I advocate. And that’s because when someone talks about ‘mind over matter’ they’re talking about trying to use our conscious mind to make some virtually impossible changes. (And here’s a first hand example: I remember when I was first diagnosed someone giving me a potion to take with the instruction to tell myself ‘I am healed’. But of course it wasn’t true. After all, who was I kidding? I had a tumour. In fact I had two. There was no denying that. So every time I said ‘I am healed’, I felt like I was lying to myself. Which in effect I was. So I gave it up pretty quickly and ran a mile). This mind over matter stuff scares me too because it’s so trite. And it can be so dangerous, especially when it means we reject other treatments.

But the thing is there is a part of our mind that does exercise a great deal of control over our physical bodies. And that’s our subconscious mind. An entirely different part. And the bit that fascinates me is how the emotional brain (which makes up part of our subconscious mind) seems to be so intricately involved at all levels of the cancer experience:

  • preceding diagnosis;
  • in the experience of side-effects during treatment;
  • our future survival.

Did you know for instance that someone who’s had an emotionally abusive childhood (in combination with a life stress in the preceding year) will have less of an immune response to a basal cell carcinoma, than someone who’s had a happier childhood?(1)

The thing is our emotional challenges from the past can affect us in the here and now.

Did you know that we can be so vulnerable with the diagnosis of cancer that just the mere suggestion of side-effects is enough to create the experience… side-effects we may not have otherwise experienced.(2)

It’s called the nocebo effect.

Did you know that if you’re depressed and you have cancer you’re twice as likely to die over a 10 year period than if your mind is in a better place.(3)

That’s what a recent study found across a whole range of cancers.

Did you know that a very simple psychological intervention for women with Stage 2 and 3 breast cancer resulted in a 45% decrease in recurrence and at 56% decrease in death over 11 years? (4)

Now if a drug could do that we’d be all over it.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Even back as far as the 1970s when radiation oncologist Dr O. Carl Simonton pioneered mind-body medicine in the area of cancer treatment, there were already hundreds of research papers that linked the mind and emotions to malignancy and other diseases. Today, there would be thousands.

As my own oncologist said to me, your mind is so important in this.

We are physical, mental, emotional and spiritual beings. To deny this, to only treat the physical, is only doing part of the job. To deny how important the mind is in the experience of cancer, out of fear or ignorance or both, is the greater danger.

Without doubt, our minds affect our experience and it seems, our outcomes. But our minds run so much deeper than just the conscious part we are aware of. And that’s the difference. We need to work at both a conscious and subconscious level. But that doesn’t mean that we need a ‘strong’ mind to do this. We simply need to redirect the mind. And this can be so gentle when you know what you’re doing.

After all, the gentle drip of water will wear away the rock.


The real issue is not whether the mind and emotions affect the course of treatment;

the question is rather how to direct them most effectively in support of it.


Dr O.Carl Simonton
Radiation Oncologist



(1) Fagundes CP, Glaser R, Johnson SL, Andridge RR, Yang EV, Di Gregorio MP, Chen M, Lambert DR, Jewell SD, Bechtel MA, Hearne DW, Herron JB, Kiecolt-Glaser JK. Basal cell carcinoma: stressful life events and the tumor environment. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2012 Jun;69(6):618-26.

(2) Faasse K, Petrie KJ. The nocebo effect: patient expectations and medication side effects. Postgrad Med J published online July 10, 2013. doi:10.1136/postgradmedj- 2012-131730.

(3) Mols F, Husson O, Roukema JA, van de Poll-Franse LV. Depressive symptoms are a risk factor for all-cause mortality: results from a prospective population-based study among 3,080 cancer survivors from the PROFILES registry.J Cancer Surviv (2013) 7: 484. doi:10.1007/s11764-013-0286-6.

(4) Andersen BL, Yang H, Farrar WB, Golden-Kreutz DM, Emery CF, Thornton LM, Young DC, Carson, WE. Psychologic Intervention Improves Survival for Breast Cancer Patients: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Cancer. 2008 Dec 15; 113(12): 3450–3458.doi:  10.1002/cncr.23969.

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