This is the question I set out to answer, in my quest to find all the tools available to us to support our immune systems.
This is what I found. First off, researchers from Australia conducted a review of studies on the subject and have found that optimism is closely associated with a strategy called benefit finding (1). Benefit finding, as the name implies, is a strategy in which you find the positives in adverse situations.
You might be thinking, what allows a cancer patient to engage in the practice of benefit finding? Well, two prerequisites suggested themselves in the research review—optimism and social support.
While the tabulation of their literature review did show a mix of results, some of the positive findings of the practice of benefit finding were:
- less depression,
- less anxiety and
- lower levels of cortisol.
Lower levels of cortisol is important because cortisol is a stress hormone that suppresses the immune system. So, lower levels of cortisol means a stronger immune system.
While this is by no means strong evidence, I believe every little bit helps. So, if there is some evidence optimism and benefit finding can help my immune system, then these tools are going straight into my toolkit!
A second study that I looked at made the waters on the subject a bit more cloudy (2). While optimists do have better mental health such as mood, better adaptation to change, and less depression and anxiety, it seems it is not as straightforward as “an optimist will always have a better immune response”. It appears to be a situation of short-term pain versus long-term gain. Let me explain this in more detail by giving you an example.
An optimist is diagnosed with cancer. They believe the cancer will be contained and the treatment they will undergo will be easy and effective. They start learning what they can about their cancer, begin networking with others and really get engaged in their cancer treatment. Then, they find out their cancer is more advanced and the treatment comes with little guarantee of a cure—this can spike their levels of cortisol because of disappointment and/or because the stress of being engaged in their cancer diagnosis is draining on them. The result of this spike in cortisol is lower immune system function.
In contrast, a pessimist is diagnosed with cancer and they think “game over”. They do not hold high expectations and do not get engaged in finding answers or treatments. This disengagement is actually protecting their immune system. They do not experience a spike their levels of cortisol from the disappointment or the draining energy of engagement and therefore, do not have a lowered immune system function.
However, in the long run, as the initial stress of the diagnosis wears off, the optimist begins to see some successes along the way. The benefits of their engagement in their cancer journey forms new support systems and community. They may even begin benefit finding. As a result, their immune function improves and surpasses that of the pessimist.
So, what does this research tell me? I think the optimist is the healthier perspective. As a short-term strategy though, I would suggest setting incremental goals, which may avert some immune-depleting disappointment. I would also recommend a regular practice of benefit finding.
A benefit I can report from my cancer experience is that I had a much closer relationship with my family, especially my mother. So much so that I would now say, I think the benefit of that closer relationship, outweighed the ugliness of having cancer and treatment.
What benefit did you find in your cancer experience? Leave your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below!
(1) Eur J Oncol Nurs. 2013 Dec;17(6):760-6. 2013 Apr 21.
Benefit finding in cancer: a review of influencing factors and health outcomes.
Pascoe L1, Edvardsson D.
(2) Brain Behav Immun. 2005 May;19(3):195-200.
Optimism and immunity: do positive thoughts always lead to positive effects?