The Benefits of Psychological Help to Cancer Patients
Dr. Cunningham's overall field of interest is behavioural medicine/health psychology. Within this area he is principally interested in the effects of mental therapies as an adjunct to medical treatment for chronic disease. Theoretical approaches to this area involve determining useful ways to conceptualize mind-body interactions, whereas the practical task is learning what kinds of mental change favour health.
Dr. Cunningham's experimental work over the last few years has involved the development and evaluation of short-term group programs for cancer patients, offering support and teaching specific coping skills, such as relaxation, positive mental imagery, cognitive restructuring and goal setting. The research has examined the effects of these group programs on patients' quality and length of life. The program has been found to produce lasting improvement in mood and quality of life in most patients, and has been published as a series of books, workbooks and audiotapes/CDs (for further information see the website below). Some evidence has been found, in prospective, longitudinal studies, that when people with metastatic cancers become strongly involved with psychological and spiritual self-healing work, this may significantly prolong their lives. Qualitative analysis of interviews with people whose lifespan has exceeded expert predictions by many years, has led to a simple theory of the beneficial effects of mental change on progression of cancer. In brief, distorted psychological adaptations (e.g. development of low self esteem) early in life lead to greater "allostatic load" (stress) which predisposes to various diseases, including cancer. Rational psychological healing work can reverse these distortions to some extent, favouring better health in some cases.