Ronni Gordon is  a cancer survivor and long-time journalist who has written about her journey, about health and fitness, and about how she and others have prevailed in difficult situations. She brings to her writing a mix of personal experience with knowledge about the health-care system and how cancer patients can navigate it. A graduate of Vassar College with a master's degree in journalism from Boston University, she is a freelance writer who worked in daily newspapers for more than 30 years. She has been published in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dana FarberCancer Institute magazine, and Cancer Today magazine. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her dog, Maddie, short for Madison (Avenue) in honor of her hometown, New York, and is mother of three grown children, Ben, Joe, and Katie

Ronni Gordon

Does Knocking on Wood Combat Cancer?

Tuesday, 19 Nov 2013 10:16 AM

By Ronni Gordon

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Did you know that knocking on wood is good for your health?
 
Your mental health, that is. And that's important for cancer survivors who may feel jinxed by having the hubris to say they are in remission, or they are finished with chemotherapy or otherwise doing well.
 
A common refrain is, "I'm in remission…knock on wood."
 
There is actually some evidence that this works.
 
A study of college students reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, showed that although knocking on wood does not of course influence events, it does reverse the worry that accompanies a possible jinx.
 
"Across cultures, superstitions intended to reverse bad luck, like throwing salt or spitting, often share a common ingredient," researcher Jane L. Risen told The New York Times. "In one way or another, they involve an avoidant action, one that exerts force away from oneself, as if pushing something away.
 
"This pushing action turns out to be important, because people's beliefs are often influenced by bodily feelings and movements. Because people generally push bad things away, we suggest that they may have built up an association between pushing actions and avoiding harm or danger. This led us to speculate that when people knock on wood, or throw salt, or spit, the ritual may help calm the mind, because such avoidant actions lead people to simulate the feelings, thoughts and sensations they experience when they avoid something bad."
 
When you look up stories about cancer survivors, you find a lot of knocking on wood.
For example, a report on MD Anderson Cancer Center's Website about an ovarian cancer survivor read, "She's been cancer-free ever since then and continues to knock on wood every day."

A reporter writing about young cancer patients says, "I've been blessed to have good health [knock on wood] and frankly, have taken it for granted."
 
And then there is a story about a high school athlete "who has been battling and — knock on wood — beating the testicular cancer he was diagnosed with last December."
I have been doing a lot of knocking on wood myself lately as I approach the five-year anniversary of my bone marrow transplant. If there isn't any wood around, I make believe there is, for example by knocking on my head.
 
I can't say it myself because then I will have to run all over the room knocking on wood, but I can quote my doctor, who said in the beginning, "After two years you break out the Champagne, but only after five years can you use the word 'cure.' "
 
I didn’t say it. He did, so I am in the clear.
 
 
 

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