Column: Other treatments for cancer

Columnist Dr Mary Wren
Columnist Dr Mary Wren
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We live in a very scientific medical world. It can feel like medicine and science should increasingly provide answers for our illness and new cures.

There are many new developments and yet we still have a huge way to go.

I am fascinated by looking beyond the purely physical approach to health care. I think it is often easy to just provide a physical treatment – a prescription or an operation – because this is quick and less time-consuming and painful for both the doctor and the patient

However, in a lot of chronic illnesses I think there is more than just a physical component.

In 1974 (when I was 10) a British study looked at 160 women admitted to hospital for a breast biopsy.

All women filled in a questionnaire and were interviewed by psychologists.

Family members were interviewed too and the testing took place before biopsy results were received by anyone.

The results were very interesting. “The main finding was a significant association between diagnosis of breast cancer and a behaviour pattern, persisting throughout adult life, of abnormal release of emotions, especially anger.”

A previous study was similar – “an inability to discharge or deal appropriately with anger, aggressiveness or hostility”.

Many people with cancer worry that it is a result of something they have done, that they have gone wrong somewhere, so we don’t want to load guilt on inappropriately. But we also don’t want to ignore something that may affect the outcome for women with cancer already or help prevent cancer in others.

Our emotions directly affect our immune system. Studies at the National Cancer Institute in America found that an important group of immune cells called natural killer cells were more active in breast cancer patients who could express anger and had more social support. These cells attack and destroy the cancer cells, so this is significant. They found that emotional factors and social involvement were more important to survival than the severity of the cancer.

So, this makes me think. As well as our mammograms and self -checks, we need to care for our emotional and social health. As well as chemotherapy, we need to help women who want to address unhelpful emotional issues. Maybe there is a whole strand of research we are not even considering and maybe the soft side of medicine is more important than we think.