Rallying the Troops Inside Our Bodies

The Mind and Cancer

"One of the most powerful research findings on cancer survival has to do with social support," said Duke University psychologist James Spira, Ph.D. "Therapeutic groups offer the potential to provide for greater intimate support than even friends and family can often offer."

Emotional Writing

Meanwhile, psychologists and other scientists have found other indications of the link between psychological interventions and the body's immune response. Keicolt-Glaser and Glaser, along with Southern Methodist University psychologist James Pennebaker, Ph.D., found that research subjects who simply wrote about traumatic events in their lives showed a boost in their immune-system activity, compared with control subjects, who demonstrated no increase in activity.


UCLA psychiatrist Fawzy Fawzy, M.D., for example, conducted a study involving a six-week structured group therapy for newly diagnosed malignant-melanoma patients with good prognoses. The subjects maintained greater numbers and activity of tumor-killing cells than the control group did.

Researchers such as Michael Antoni, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami, have found that asymptomatic HIV-infected men who undergo stress-management training show a slower rate of decline in the immunological cells that the AIDS virus attacks than do men who receive no such treatment.

More Work to Do On the Mind-Body Connection

Despite the rapid development of PNI research, the relationship between the immune system and psychological states remains largely uncharted, scientists concede.

"Psychological factors might affect immunity, but where they affect the immunity that, in turn, affects the disease, is a hard question to answer," said Antoni.

Some worry that the growing knowledge of the mind-body interface can lead to a "blame-the-victim" mindset.

"When we say psychotherapy may prolong survival and provide an increased support system, that's very encouraging," said Shirley Glass, Ph.D., a Baltimore psychologist who underwent breast cancer surgery and chemotherapy three years ago. "But we may also be sending the message that we're holding people accountable for their own prognosis, as if we're saying, 'If you don't have the right course of disease, it's because you don't think the right thoughts or image the right images.'"

The Right Kind of Help

Glass also warned that research on the effectiveness of group therapy in helping people with serious illness should not be interpreted to include self-help groups that aren't led by professionals trained to help people with medical crises.

But experts say psychological help, particularly the kind that offers the right kind of group support, bears no physical or emotional danger. And even if it can't always help some people overcome their illness, it can no doubt help improve the quality of their lives.

"I can spout off 'brilliant wisdom' to a patient, and they'll nod politely and smile," Spira said. "But when another patient says the exact same thing, suddenly a light goes off in that person's head. The patient is going to listen much more intently because these other group members are people who are experiencing the same thing."

Copyright © 1997 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.