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Home  /  Integrative Cancer Care  /  Mind  /  Feelings, Thoughts, and Beliefs  /  Emotions and Cancer

Emotions and Cancer

By Jeannine Walston

Emotions and CancerA link between certain emotions and cancer has been observed for over 2,000 years. That includes respected cancer physicians in the 1700s until 1900 who identified specific emotions in many cancer patients. Some common emotions written about in physician records, textbooks, and journals are depression, despair, emotional loss, hopelessness, grief, and disappointment. But in 1900, the psychosomatic viewpoint and practice changed when medicine evolved into anesthesia, surgery, radiation, and other medical treatments focused on local disease without health care addressing other parts of the whole person1,2.

Emotional Coping Styles and the Type C

Connections between emotions and cancer emerged again in cancer care. Over the last 100 years, research studies evaluated and published about emotions and cancer since the 1950s1,2,3. The study results indicate that some cancer patients use specific emotional coping styles. If you have heard the term Type C personality, please recognize that it’s an inaccurate term and perception about specific emotions in people with cancer. Cancer patients learning about emotions and cancer benefit from understanding that certain emotional behaviors are not a Type C personality and instead a way to cope with their situations and life experiences. Whether if very old or for fewer people somewhat new in recent years, coping styles can change. Please know the following before exploring potential coping styles in people with cancer.

  • Coping styles are not considered the only cause of cancer in some patients. However, specific behavior patterns may be factors in cancer risk and ultimately recovery.
  • Coping styles generally develop unintentionally as a by-product of early conditioning. Learning about behavior patterns needs to be balanced with self-compassion, empowerment, and hope. Self-blame cannot be a part of the process.
  • Not everyone with cancer exhibits these coping styles associated with the disease.

Before explaining Type C coping styles, in contrast we will define Type A. Maybe you have heard about Type A behavior associated with heart disease. Type A behavior is generally self-centered, highly charged, competitive, and overflowing with anxiety, anger, and hostility.

Research indicates that cancer patients may exhibit Type C behavior as coping styles (not the Type C personality), which is the polar opposite of Type A. Type C behavior patterns are viewed as coping styles that may include the following3.

  • Nonexpression of anger and lack of awareness of any feelings of anger, past or present.
  • No experiences or expression of other “negative” emotions such as anxiety, fear, and sadness.
  • Patience, unassertiveness, cooperation, and appeasement in work, social, and family relationships, as well as compliance with external authorities.
  • Overly concerned with meeting the needs of others, insufficiently engaged in meeting their own needs, and often self-sacrificing to an extreme.
  • Tendency to feel some level of chronic hopelessness and helplessness.

Some research suggests that these coping styles may weaken the immune system and leave people more vulnerable to cancer progression.

Type C is considered more of a coping style than a Type C personality since these behavior patterns often developed as a survival strategy. Coping styles evolve and individuals who are considered Type C can learn new behaviors. People can embody a variety of traits from throughout the coping continuum of Type A, to B, to C.

Benefits of Expressing Emotions

“My research has shown me that when emotions are expressed—which is to say that the biochemicals that are substrate of emotion are flowing freely—all systems are united and whole. When emotions are repressed, denied, not allowed to be whatever they may be, our network pathways get blocked, stopping the flow of the vital feel-good, unifying chemicals that run both our biology and our behavior.”
-Candance Pert, PhD, Molecules of Emotion

In The Type C Connection: The Mind-Body Link to Cancer and Your Health, Lydia Temoshok, PhD and Henry Dreher offer perspectives on the association between emotions and health, as well as a portrait of emotional terrain in people with cancer.

“The word ’emotion’ comes from the Latin root meaning ‘to move.’ Threatening or disturbing circumstances cause us to be moved to fear, anger, or sadness, and these emotions involve complex chain reactions by our nervous and endocrine systems. If the feelings cannot be experienced, discharged, or properly managed, a biological imperative is blocked. The long-term consequence is mind-body imbalance3.”

More about Healing through Emotions

The expression of positive and negative emotions is a consistent quality in survivors, according to Dr. Temoshok. Through transforming behaviors, she conveys that some people with cancer become “more expressive, assertive, and self-nurturing.” She wrote, “…a fundamental shift in their relationship to self and to the world—by deepening their awareness of inner needs and feelings and by expanding to make more genuine contact with others… (to create) a healing of the split between the mind and body, and a remarkable improvement in emotional and physical health.”

To learn more about emotions and cancer with some clear ways to create greater joy in your life and ways to eliminate shoulds in your thinking and actions in your life, explore Cancer As a Turning Point.

Other helpful information for exploring, understanding, expressing, integrating, and healing emotions include Creating Healthier Beliefs, Movement, Calming All of You, and much more.

You may also want to use our Spirituality Assessments, a series of questions to reflect, identify, and define important components of your life, identity, spirituality, and more.

Positive and Negative Emotions

Understanding these concepts reveals that “negative” emotions may not be negative.

“Primary emotions like anger, fear, and sadness do not have any harmful effect on our bodies. They alter our physiology, but so does every natural biological function. It’s only when we habitually block feelings that they become ‘toxic’ states associated with weakened immunity: anger becomes resentment or chronic depression; fear turns into panic; sadness yields to hopelessness3.”

Likewise, “positive” emotions may not necessarily be positive.

“I must confess that I find the notion of ‘positive’ emotions a disturbing concept and perhaps even a dangerous one. At best, it implies that there is a way to live, a certain set of attitudes that may guarantee survival. At worst, the concept of positive emotions can degenerate into self-tyranny and may lead the individual into some kind of mind control. Many people now seem to fear harboring ‘negative’ emotions or ‘wrong’ thoughts in the same way people used to fear having evil thoughts3.”
-Rachel Naomi Remen, MD

Research indicates improved survival for people with cancer that express “positive” emotions such as joy, while other studies associate “negative” emotions such as anger and complaints with better patient outcomes. Do the studies contradict one another?

“They do not, and the beauty of the fighting spirit is that it embodies the seemingly opposite—but truly complementary—qualities that many cancer survivors possess. Healthy coping can’t be reduced to one narrow emotion or manifest attitude. The attempt to do so only diminishes the psychological depth of mind-cancer research3.”

For More Information

  • Getting Well Again by O. Carl Simonton, MD
  • Cancer As A Turning Point: A Handbook for People with Cancer, Their Families, and Health Professionals by Lawrence LeShan, PhD
  • The Type C Connection: The Mind-Body Link to Cancer and Your Health by Lydia Temoshok, PhD, and Henry Dreher
  • When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Mate, MD
  • Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mind-Body Medicine by Candace Pert, PhD
  • The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have by Mark Nepo
1. Cancer As A Turning Point: A Handbook for People with Cancer, Their Families, and Health Professionals by Lawrence LeShan, PhD
2. Getting Well Again
by O. Carl Simonton, MD
3. The Type C Connection: The Mind-Body Link to Cancer and Your Health
by Lydia Temoshok, PhD, and Henry Dreher