Patients who stay optimistic appear t have a better chance of surviving cancer. Dr Chia Yin Nin with KK Women's And Children's Hospital (KKH) shares her experiences.
As a medical doctor, I used to be sceptical about emotions having an impact on health. My views changed after I started practising gynaecological oncology in 2004.
I saw numerous patients recover from cancer, only to suffer a relapse when confronted with a major life crisis. I wondered if there was, indeed, a link between emotions and the chances of surviving cancer.
There are no scientific studies or randomised controlled trials that objectively measure the impact of happiness on health. Sure, there are some studies done by psychologists, but happiness, or any emotion for that matter, is very difficult to measure objectively.
What I know is anecdotal in nature, derived from my interaction with patients. In my experience, optimists tend to experience better health than pessimists.
Stress and its effects
Jane* was a patient of mine in her mid-30s with two young children. She was diagnosed with stage II cervical cancer, but the disease had already been in remission for two years and she was doing well.
Then, one day, her husband confessed that he had an affair with someone close to the family. It was a traumatic time for Jane. I remembered her knocking on my door every day, pouring her heart out to me. She cried throughout our sessions and counted on me for emotional support. Soon thereafter, she suffered a relapse. Although Jane eventually reconciled with her husband months later, we were not able to save her and she passed away one year later.
Another patient of mine, Charise*, is a bright young professional in her 30s who was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer. She had a stressful job. I advised her to take it easy, but it was difficult for her to do so when she went back to her job after treatment. Two years later, the cancer came back. I told her it was time to take a second look at her priorities in life and perhaps take it easy with regard to work. I also told her to accept and “let go” of her illness.
She decided to quit her job and took some time to focus on her cancer treatment. We managed again to send her cancer into remission with more surgery and chemotherapy. A year on, she decided to take up a “less stressful” job. But, unfortunately, her tumour marker started to rise again, suggesting yet another relapse. This time round, I did not prescribe any treatment but simply advised her to take a holiday. She toured France for a whole month, visited friends, drank lots of French wine and enjoyed herself. When she came back to see me, she not only looked rejuvenated, but her tumour marker was also normal. It was remarkable.