Pessimism Predicts Mortality in Cancer Patients


You have been told often how important it is to stay positive during the cancer journey. But what if you have lost all hope? This research study will help you understand the connection between pessimism and death.

Manu lay on the hospital bed, waiting for death to take her. The doctors had given her only a few months and they were coming to an end. It was almost time. She looked back at how she had passed the few months doing nothing, waiting. Death came exactly when the doctor had predicted it would and she went knowing exactly how it would end.

Pessimism, derived from the Latin word ‘pessimus’ (worst), is a state of mind in which one perceives life negatively. It is the negative perception of reality, not reality itself. Research has shown that there is a striking association between pessimism and death.

Linking Pessimism and Death

A study was conducted on 238 cancer patients (lung, breast, colo-rectal and gastro-intestinal) receiving palliative radiation treatment, to study the independent effects on mortality of pessimism, optimism, and depression.

The research was carried out in three phases:

  • When patients entered the study
  • 4 months later
  • 8 months later (by this time 70 patients had died.

The findings show that:

  • Not all patients were pessimists but they were not optimists either
  • A pessimistic life orientation is an important risk factor for mortality, but only among relatively younger patients (ages 30-59).
  • They also found that optimism was unrelated to survival rates.

Easing Pain with Optimism

Research conducted by Dr Margot E Kurtz and her team from the Michigan State University in East Lansing has found that:

  • Cancer patients with a more optimistic outlook were better able to manage their cancer pain
  • Those patients who had a strong sense of mastery, or control over their environment, experienced less severe fatigue on top of being able to better manage their pain.
  • While optimism helped the patients handle pain, it did not necessarily increase the chances of survival.

In conclusion, while pessimism decreases the survival rate in cancer patients, optimism helps them cope with the pain but does not really increase the chances of survival.

So, you can be pessimistic and wait for D-day like Manu or you can go out there despite all you pain and live life moment by moment … the choice is yours!


  • What are your recurring thoughts about your illness, particularly the negative thoughts?
  • What steps can you take to address these emotions?
  • Even when faced with death how can you focus on quality of life rather than being depressed about the quantity of life?


Optimism Helps Reduce Cancer Pain and Fatigue


Written by a first-year student of Communications at Mount Carmel College, Bangalore, who wishes to remain anonymous.


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