Can 'Fighters' Like Ted Kennedy Beat Disease?

Tornado Science, Facts and History

News of Senator Edward M. Kennedy's brain tumor has led to an outpouring of support from friends and colleagues, with many connecting his "fighter" mentality and "powerful spirit" in the Senate with the ability to fight a personal battle.

Research and anecdotes have shown mixed results regarding the link between a positive attitude and living longer or beating a disease. Some studies find that optimism is associated with lower risk of heart attacks, while other research shows no link between emotional well-being and cancer survival.

What does exist is a clear cultural tendency to assume fighters have a greater chance of surviving.

"In following the Kennedy saga and all the outpouring of support for him, it strikes me that the idea that cancer is something you need to fight and if you don't fight it, it will beat you, is a really strong cultural belief," said James Coyne, of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "I think it's an emotionally charged belief that is pretty resistant to science."

For instance, Hillary Rodham Clinton said, "He's a fighter. There isn't anybody like him who gets up and goes out and does battle on behalf of all of us every single day. I know he's a fighter when it comes to the challenges he's facing right now."

And President Bush made this statement: "Laura and I are concerned to learn of our friend Sen. Kennedy's diagnosis. Ted Kennedy is a man of tremendous courage, remarkable strength and powerful spirit. Our thoughts are with Sen. Kennedy and his family during this difficult period."

The Massachusetts Democrat was diagnosed on Tuesday with a malignant glioma in his left parietal lobe. Research suggests patients with malignant gliomas can live from less than a year to five years on average, depending on the size, location and severity of the tumor. For the most common type of malignant glioma, called glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), symptoms generally begin abruptly, with seizures being relatively common. GBM occurs mostly in adults and the average survival period is less than a year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Power of positive thinking

The notion that positive thoughts can bring about positive realities was brought into popular culture by a Protestant preacher and author Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote "The Power of Positive Thinking" (1952).

While his book was supported mostly by anecdotes, some research has since substantiated Peale's ideas.

In a Johns Hopkins study, researchers followed 600 adults with a family history of heart disease. Individuals with a positive attitude were half as likely as their less optimistic counterparts to experience a heart attack or other heart issues. Researcher Diane Becker of Hopkins suggested people with a sunny outlook produce lower levels of stress hormones, helping to protect them from disease.

Similarly, University of Michigan scientists found that when doctors told participants they were receiving a painkiller that was actually a placebo, the individuals showed a release of endorphins in their brains that act as natural painkillers. And the men in the study reported feeling better.

Courage and cancer

But does any of that mean a good outlook can help someone survive a brain tumor? A survey by Coyne and his colleagues of more than 1,000 cancer patients found that emotional well-being had no bearing on cancer progression and death. The results were published this year in the journal Cancer.

When Coyne spoke with cancer patients about the study results, he said, they were relieved.

"A lot of them felt badly, particularly those who had advanced cancer, that if the cancer had advanced they hadn't done enough," Coyne told LiveScience. "They felt like they were letting people down."

He added, "The attitude is, 'cowards die and courageous people live on.' That's a really sad message."

Coyne is not negating the importance of emotional support.

"At a time of crisis like this [for Sen. Kennedy], it's wonderful to be surrounded by loving, supportive, encouraging people," Coyne said, "but it doesn't affect the physical health outcomes."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.