The role of emotions in cancer

Susie (name changed for privacy) came in to my therapy practice in Bryn Mawr, and she was reeling. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and treatment was underway. But she wasn’t sleeping. She was trying to keep it all together, and ended up alternating between tears and anger. She was certainly having trouble engaging in life. And she knew that none of that was helping her condition. So much was beyond her control, but she could benefit from understanding the role of emotions in cancer.

The role of emotions in cancer

The mind-body connection has major implications for our health and well-being. People all across the Western world are taking up practices like mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, and they are doing it with good reason. They feel better, and there is a deep and growing body of empirical evidence showing that emotions play an important role in health.

Resources as mainstream as WebMD and the Mayo Clinic address the role of stress in health. We know that stress and traumatic events impact the hormonal stress response system in ways that impair immune function and can lead to disease―even cancer. And we know that there are ways to combat that impact and improve overall health and wellbeing.

In one study of 94 women with metastatic or recurrent breast cancer, stress was correlated to disease: women who had not experienced significant stressors remained disease-free for longer periods of time than those who did experience significant stress.

So, what are you supposed to do if you are upset?

There is good news even for people experiencing tough times. You can fare better if you deal with your emotions. According to David Spiegel, M.D., one of the study authors, “people do better in the aftermath of traumatic stress if they deal with it directly. Facing, rather than fleeing it, is important… In other words, don’t suppress your emotions.”

Please, don’t suppress your emotions. Many people who have been diagnosed with cancer experienced a significant loss in the two years before diagnosis. I can’t tell you how many times when I’m doing energy healing on a person with cancer I hear the phrase “un-cried tears “. Tears are not shameful, and we should throw away the silly lyric “big girls don’t cry” and its implication that even little boys shouldn’t. Tears are cleansing and we do ourselves a great service when we cry them.

The “Type C” personality

Not shedding those tears is an aspect of the “type C personality”, a term dubbed for the traits commonly seen among people who have been diagnosed with cancer. In the Cancer Report, Susan Silberstein, Ph.D., of the Center for Advancement in Cancer Education, outlines the traits. They are:

  • Repression of negative emotions (as mentioned above)
  • Feeling hopeless, that there are no options, or a lack of control
  • Not having deep emotional ties or being in toxic relationships
  • A tendency to keep the peace at any cost, to put others’ needs first, or even to be unaware of their own needs
  • A feeling (often unconscious) that they do not deserve happiness, success, or even life
  • A need to gain attention through the disease which they could not, or did not, receive otherwise

No, it’s not your fault

Getting cancer is not anyone’s fault. We are living at the intersection of genetics, experience, environmental toxins. A lot of that is beyond our control, which can feel scary. But some of it is, and that’s why this information about the mind-body connection and the “Type C personality” can be so empowering.

When I work with clients who have cancer, we spend a lot of time re-working their emotional patterns. We create a safe space to cry. We reframe the work ethic to create less stress and a more balanced life. We practice shifting emotional boundaries to create healthier relationships. We shine the light on those tendencies to “stuff it” and practice speaking up. All of these are skills that can be learned, and learning them leads to a happier, and healthier, life.

As for Susie…

Susie and I worked together for several weeks. During that time she had a few “aha” moments. On her first visit, she cried. But after the tears were released, she started to feel lighter and clearer, and certainly more optimistic. We used some hypnotherapy and guided meditation techniques to help her find her voice. When she used it, she found that, far from driving people away, her relationships actually improved.  She evaluated her work schedule and found ways to be more efficient and less stressed. And she became confident that her treatments were working. Susie managed to learn some of the lessons her cancer had to teach and was able to get back to the joy of living.

And that, it seems to me, is pretty much the point. 🙂

Written by 

Sarah is a licensed professional counselor in Pennsylvania. She works as a therapist and coach with people around the world, helping them create more peace within themselves and in their relationships. She is the proud mom of three sons. In her spare time, she's an avowed yogi and an avid runner.

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