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No. 30: Nov-Dec 1983

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Apathy And Cancer

Doctors have frequently observed that the "will to survive" is important in controlling the progression of serious diseases. Most of the evidence linking the patient's mood with recovery from illness is anecdotal -- little wonder since mood is hard-to-measure. Some statistical evidence has recently been accumulated by S.M. Levy and R. Herber-man of the National Cancer Institute; but the situation still seems complex at best.

From a study of 75 women with breast cancer, there appears to be a significant and involved relationship between age, the body's immune function, and a psychological factor called "fatigue." One clear-cut finding was that young patients facing radiation therapy and also reporting high levels of psychological fatigue were the only patients in the surveyed group showing diminished activity by the body's natural killer cells. These killer cells com-prise an important part of the defense against cancer. This biological consequence of apathy is confirmed by an-other study showing that cancer patients with "psychological distress" had better chances of recovery than those who had no "fight."

(Herbert, W.; "Giving It Up -- At the Cellular Level," Science News, 124:148, 1983.)

Comment. Assuming such mind-body correlations are real, how is mental attitude (supposedly some pattern of nerve signals in the brain) converted into greater or lesser populations of natural killer cells?

From Science Frontiers #30, NOV-DEC 1983. 1983-2000 William R. Corliss