Unhelpful Cancer Advice From Celebrities

Patrick Swayze's fellow celebrities shouldn't be blamed for making such a public show of their sympathy for the cancer-stricken actor. Even if it would be more seemly to pass on their good wishes in person, or privately, they can't always dodge reporters' questions. But do stars like Kelly Lynch really have to promote the pernicious notion that a positive attitude can help against a disease as deadly as Swayze's pancreatic cancer?

Lynch, Swayze's co-star in Road House, talked to People about the 55-year-old actor's illness on a red-carpet line at Sunday's premiere for the new Rolling Stones concert film at New York's Ziegfeld Theater. "If anyone can get through this, it's him," said Lynch. She described Swayze as "the most determined, positive, forward-thinking person I've ever met."

One isn't supposed to say this, because the truth is depressing: Lynch's belief is without any scientific foundation. The latest studies confirm the medical conventional wisdom: an upbeat attitude has no measurable effect on patients' lifespans, or response to treatment. What's so wrong about a bit of optimism? It implies that the failure of a round of chemotherapy is the fault of the patient, rather than the result of an unpredictable genetic lottery, and that trope is even more distressing for terminally ill patients.

"The idea that we can control illness and death with our minds appeals to our deepest yearnings, but it just isn't so," says Jimmie Holland, a psychiatrist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center who's argued against the tyranny of positive thinking. "It is so sad that cancer patients are made to believe that if they aren't doing well it is somehow their own fault because they aren't positive enough."