With improvements in cancer treatment, more and more individuals will be cancer
survivors. Many of these survivors will face unique physical and mental health challenges after cancer treatment. A recent study published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine suggests that optimism and self-affirmation – the tendency to actively think about the positive aspects of oneself – may promote health in cancer survivors.
Spontaneous self-affirmation refers to actively thinking about the positive traits of oneself when faced with difficult situations, such as having cancer. Optimism is a related personality construct that is characterized by the tendency to view the future positively. In this study, researchers looked at the relation between optimism, spontaneous self-affirmation, and various physical and mental health outcomes, such as cognitive decline, current affect, and information seeking. They used a national sample of cancer survivors from the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS). Analysis of large, national datasets allows for more general conclusions to be drawn about cancer survivors.
The main result of this study was that survivors who spontaneously self-affirmed showed greater hopefulness and had a greater likelihood of seeking cancer information. Of note, these relations were still present when controlling for optimism, which suggests that the effect is not simply due to people who self-affirm being more optimistic. Additionally, self-affirming women with a breast cancer diagnosis showed greater confidence in seeking health information, while this was not shown for women with non-breast cancer or men with cancer.
The take home message from this study is that self-affirmation may be beneficial for the mental and physical health of cancer survivors. Although optimism is considered stable across time, self-affirmation may be more amenable to change, and thus can be targeted in interventions to improve the overall health of cancer survivors. Future directions include determining who is likely to self-affirm after a cancer diagnosis and determining whether self-affirmation could lead to increased self-efficacy for managing health.
Reference: Taber, J. M., Klein, W. M., Ferrer, R. A., Kent, E. E., & Harris, P. R. (2015). Optimism and Spontaneous Self-affirmation are Associated with Lower Likelihood of Cognitive Impairment and Greater Positive Affect among Cancer Survivors. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 50(2), 198-209.