The Cancer Personality:
Its Importance in Healing
Evidence of a relationship between cancer and personality type has existed for centuries. Going back in history to the second century AD, Galen, a Greek physician famous for his astute observations of patients and for his accurate descriptions of diseases, noted that women with breast cancer frequently had a tendency to be melancholic.
In dealing with many thousands of cancer patients over the past many years, it has been our observation that there are certain personality traits which are rather consistently present in the cancer-susceptible individual. These characteristics are as follows:
1) Being highly conscientious, dutiful, responsible, caring, hard-working, and usually of above average intelligence.
2) Exhibiting a strong tendency toward carrying other people’s burdens and toward taking on extra obligations, often “worrying for others.”
3) Having a deep-seated need to make others happy, tending to be “people pleasers.” Having a great need for approval.
4) Often having a history of lack of closeness with one or both parents, sometimes, later in life, resulting in lack of closeness with spouse or others who would normally be close.
5) Harboring long-suppressed toxic emotions, such as anger, resentment and/or hostility. Typically the cancer-susceptible individual internalizes such emotions and has great difficulty expressing them.
6) Reacting adversely to stress, often becoming unable to cope adequately with such stress. Usually experiencing an especially damaging event about 2 years before the onset of detectable cancer. The patient is unable to cope with this traumatic event or series of events, which comes as a “last straw” on top of years of suppressed reactions to stress.
7) Showing an inability to resolve deep-seated emotional problems and conflicts, usually arising in childhood, often even being unaware of their presence.
Typical of the cancer-susceptible personality, as noted above, is the long-standing tendency to suppress “toxic emotions,” particularly anger. Usually starting in childhood, this individual has held in his/her hostility and other unacceptable emotions. More often than not, this feature of the affected personality has its origins in feelings of rejection by one or both parents. Whether these feelings or rejection are justified or not, it is the perception of rejection that matters, and this results in a lack of closeness with the “rejecting” parent or parents, followed later in life by a similar lack of closeness with spouses and others with whom close relationships would normally develop. Those at higher risk for cancer tend to develop feelings of loneliness as a result of their having been deprived of affection and acceptance earlier in life, even if this is merely their own perception. These people have a tremendous need for approval and acceptance, developing a very high sensitivity to the needs of others while suppressing their own emotional needs.
These good folks become the “caretakers” of the world, showing great compassion and caring for others, and going out of their way to look after the needs of others. They are very reluctant to accept help from others, fearing that it may jeopardize their role as caretakers or that they might appear to have too much self-concern. Throughout their childhood they have typically been taught “not to be selfish,” and they take this to heart as a major lifetime objective. All of this benevolence is highly commendable, of course, in our culture, but must be somehow modified in the case of the cancer patient. A distinction needs to be made here between the “care-giving” and the “care-taking” personality. There is nothing wrong with care-giving, of course, but the problem arises when the susceptible individual derives his/her entire worth, value and identity from his/her role as “caretaker.” If this shift cannot be made, the patient is stuck in this role, and the susceptibility to cancer greatly increases.
As noted above, a consistent feature of those who are susceptible to cancer appears to be that they “suffer in silence,” and bear their burdens without complaint. Burdens of their own as well as the burdens of others weigh heavily, often subconsciously as well as consciously, upon these people because they, through a lifetime of suppression, internalize their problems, cares and conflicts. The carefree extrovert, on the other hand, seems to be far less vulnerable to cancer than the caring introvert described above.
How one reacts to stress appears to be a major factor in the development of cancer. Most cancer patients have experienced a highly stressful event, usually about 2 years prior to the onset of detectable disease. This traumatic event is often beyond the patient’s control, such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a business, job, home, or some other major disaster. The typical cancer victim has lost the ability to cope with these extreme events, because his/her coping mechanism lies in his/her ability to control the environment. When this control is lost, the patient has no other way to cope.
Major stress, as we have seen, causes suppression of the immune system, and does so more overwhelmingly in the cancer-susceptible individual than in others. Thus personal tragedies and excessive levels of stress appear to combine with the underlying personality described above to bring on the immune deficiency which allows cancer to thrive. These observations have given rise to the term psychoneuroimmunology.
In our experience, one of the most difficult and most important hurdles to overcome in cancer patients is how to make major changes in their life-styles. Not only is it necessary to make changes in the physical aspects of their lives such as eating habits, but major changes need to be made in the way they react to stress. The way they react to stress is due largely to the way they think about life. There can be no lasting changes of behavior without first having a change in thinking and in belief systems. It is often extremely difficult for these patients to make substantial changes in these ingrained patterns of thought. Many find it too difficult or to disagreeable to make such alterations in their settled way of thinking and reacting. Many likewise find it too unpleasant to make changes in the physical aspects of their life-style, even in the face of life-threatening illness.
In our office patients are counseled to address their problems and to make the appropriate adjustments to the best of their ability. A psychologist with extensive experience in dealing with these unique problems is readily available to our patients.
These patients are encouraged to take charge of their own health and to be active participants in their care. They are urged to learn as much as possible about the disease and all of the treatment options, including the various conventional modalities.