After many years practicing as a nurse practitioner, I’ve observed two truths about patients in the doctor’s office (yes Cancer Survivors, I’m talking about you!):
A doctor or nurse can tell a patient the medical facts until the medical provider is blue in the face. The patient will not change behavior based on these facts. The patient will only change behavior if the patient believes it will result in something good. So, if the patient believes what you say to be true, you’re in luck. If they don’t share your belief, positive change will not occur.
The placebo effect is real. Example: I often prescribe a pill based on a patient’s physical symptom. Sometimes the patient takes the wrong pill because they confuse their medications. The surprising result is: even though they take the wrong pill, they STILL get relief of the symptom. The symptom relief could not be due to the wrong pill - instead the relief, which is actual, is due to the belief the arbitrary pill they took relieved the symptom. This is the placebo effect.
Health belief and the power of placebo are the subject of rigorous scientific research. I discovered the work of Alia Crum, a reasearcher at Stanford University, while researching mindset for Brio’s survivor wellness programs. Dr. Crum is a psychologist who studies the power of mindset and the placebo effect to change physical health outcomes.
The five minute video below features Dr. Crum summarizing her work. Watch the video and we’ll discuss how the concepts might apply to a vitality mindset in cancer survivorship.
How can Dr. Crum’s assertions about health beliefs and the power of the placebo effect apply to feeling vital after cancer?
Well, if “Mindsets are not peripheral but central to health and behavior,” then the trajectory of your journey to wellness after cancer is dependent on your mindset because “Mindsets create the reality that’s implied.”
If a cancer survivor believes you will always suffer because you had cancer, based on Dr. Crum’s observations, it’s likely this “cancer victim mindset” will certainly result in ongoing suffering.
On the other hand, if a cancer survivor maintains a mindset where cancer is not a catastrophic event but instead part of normal aging - just a bump in the road - the “mindset setup” would be potentially so different. Perhaps this normalized, vitality mindset would create a reality of acceptance in which you’d be more likely to suceed in recovery activities and enjoy the realistic expectation of a fulfilling life, no matter how changed. This mindset would be less likely to include fatigue, anxiety, and pain.
Obviously a person with a vitality mindset would still have to work hard to get healthy after cancer, but it’s interesting to know belief in vitality after cancer could be a self fulfilling prophecy.
So what if you’re struggling with a catastrophic, negative mindset? How do you change it to create a healthier reality?
Brio’s program created a process to help cancer survivors shift to a vitality mindset. Mindset change requires intentional work to change the automatic, negative thoughts that undermine your wellness efforts. These automatic thoughts must be identified, understood, analyzed, and then modified from those which define a catastrophic mindset to those characteristic of a vitality mindset.
It’s comforting to know you aren’t subject to the position of the tea leaves in the bottom of your cup. You can change your beliefs and harness a vitality mindset to take you where you want to go after cancer.
The right social context for this work is paramount, which is why Brio’s programs contain an essential community component. “The power comes from the social contexts that shape our mindsets in ways that activate our body’s natural healing abilities.” Having a community to validate your mindset will elevate its power to heal.
“Objective health benefits, things like a healthy heart and a healthy weight, depend not just on what we’re doing, but what we think about what we do.” You can “do all the right things” for good health, but if you don’t have a mindset to match, you short change yourself by minimizing your body’s natural ability to thrive and heal.
For me, the proven power of mere belief fueling your potential to thrive is absolute magic. This is why you need to be given a wellness system which includes “all the right things” to conquer fatigue after cancer AND the rocket fuel of the vitality mindset and a relevant social context in a supportive community to make it a true reality.