What is the evidence that pyschotherapeutic interventions really work?


In 2008 Institute of Medicine, the most respected source of medical practice guidelines, published Cancer Care for the Whole Patient: Meeting Psychosocial Health Needs with over 400 pages of best scientific evidence that psychosocial interventions are vital for cancer patients and their families. They stated “Cancer care today often provides state-of-the-science biomedical treatment, but fails to address the psychological and social (psychosocial) problems associated with the illness. This failure can compromise the effectiveness of health care and thereby adversely affect the health of cancer patients. Psychological and social problems created or exacerbated by cancer—including depression and other emotional problems; lack of information or skills needed to manage the illness; lack of transportation or other resources; and disruptions in work, school, and family life—cause additional suffering, weaken adherence to prescribed treatments, and threaten patients’ return to health.

A range of services is available to help patients and their families manage the psychosocial aspects of cancer. Indeed, these services collectively have been described as constituting a “wealth of cancer-related community support services.”

Today, it is not possible to deliver good-quality cancer care without using existing approaches, tools, and resources to address patients’ psychosocial health needs. All patients with cancer and their families should expect and receive cancer care that ensures the provision of appropriate psychosocial health services.” This report also stated, that in the United States it is rather an exception than a rule that such interventions are actually delivered. Beat the Odds at Todd Cancer Institute is therefore a unique program that implements IOM guidelines.

However, already in 1971, Dr. O Carl Simonton, an oncologist widely recognized as the father of mind-body oncology, recognized these needs of patients and their families and started addressing them through his program that brought him international recognition and which became the foundation for Beat the Odds. He was the first to publish on the survival effects of psychotherapeutic interventions in cancer patients (O. Carl Simonton 1981) .

Simonton’s preliminary study found that patients who participated in his program lived on average twice as long and had a better quality of life. There was an increased number of long-term survivors in his program, and those who died had an improved quality of death.

While his publications originally sparked both excitement and controversy, Simonton’s results were confirmed by five other studies meeting the best research standards: randomized clinical trials quoted below.

At Stanford University, Dr. David Spiegel (1989) studied women with advanced breast cancer, in which all subjects received conventional oncology treatment, while half of the subjects also participated in psychotherapy. As in Simonton’s study, women in the group who participated in psychotherapy as well as conventional treatment had double the average survival time and improved quality of life. There were also a higher number of long-term survivors.

Dr. Fawzy Fawzy (1993) had similar findings in a study of malignant melanoma at UCLA, and concluded that improved coping with everyday stress had an impact on the biological course of the disease.

The randomized clinical trial by Dr. Thomas Küchler (2007) from Kiel in Germany has shown that patients with GI cancers (esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver/gallbladder, and, colon/rectum) benefited from a psychotherapeutic program in terms of survival when compared to patients who did not participate in such a program.

The most robust clinical trial lead by Dr. Barbara Andersen (2008) at Ohio State University has shown that women with breast cancer participating in a group psychological intervention program reduced the risk of breast cancer recurrence by 45 percent. What’s fascinating is that intervention group participants that had a recurrence of cancer years later still had stronger immune function, less stress and lived, on average, longer than those who didn’t take part in the group intervention (See: Andersen et al, 2010 ).

Dr. Andersen concluded, “If psychological interventions to reduce stress are delivered early, they can improve mental health, health, and possibly even their odds of survival.”

More recently, at the University of Miami, 240 women with a breast cancer diagnosis took part in a randomized trial that tested the effects of a cognitive-behavioral stress management intervention developed by Dr Michael Antoni and it also provided survival benefits to the participants. “Women with breast cancer who participated in the study initially used stress management techniques to cope with the challenges of primary treatment to lower distress. Because these stress management techniques also give women tools to cope with fears of recurrence and disease progression, the present results indicate that these skills can be used to reduce distress and depressed mood and optimize quality of life across the survivorship period as women get on with their lives,” said lead author Dr. Jamie Stagl (2015).

Dr. Simonton’s mind-body approach to treating cancer patients has been implemented and shown to be effective in different cultures throughout the world, regardless of background, race, or religion.

For explanation of mechanisms how our mind and reduction of stress may influence healing please check FAQ 3 How can my mind heal cancer?