Is there such a thing as a “cancer personality”? A 1984 study measured the physiological responses to stressful stimuli of three groups: patients with malignant melanoma (a potentially fatal form of skin cancer), people with heart disease, and a control cohort with no medical illness.
Each person was connected to a dermograph, a device that recorded the body’s electrical reactions in the skin as the subject looked at a series of slides designed to elicit psychological distress. The slides displayed unpleasant statements such as “You’re ugly” or “You have only yourself to blame.”
Participants were asked to record their subjective awareness of how disturbed they felt on reading each statement and their physiological responses were registered. The researchers thus secured a printout of the actual level of nervous system distress each participant experienced. They also secured a simultaneous report of the subjects’ conscious perception of emotional stress.
Although physiological responses among the three groups were identical, the melanoma group proved most likely to deny any awareness that the messages on the slides upset them emotionally. This study demonstrated that people can experience emotional stresses with measurable physical effects on their system – while managing to sequester their feelings in a place completely beyond conscious awareness.
It was in relationship to melanoma that the notion of a “Type C” personality was first proposed, a combination of emotional traits more likely to be found in those who develop cancer than in people who remain free of it. Type C personalities have been described as extremely cooperative, patient, passive, accepting, and lacking assertiveness.
These same traits have now been found in studies of many other cancers as well. In 1991, researchers in Melbourne, Australia, investigated whether personality traits were a risk factor in cancer of the colon. Over 600 people, newly diagnosed, were compared with a matched group of controls. Cancer patients, to a statistically significant degree, were more likely to demonstrate elements of denial and repression of anger. They appeared to be “nice” people who suppressed reactions to avoid conflict.
The characteristics associated with the Type C personality all represent emotional repression, a pushing down of necessary emotions. In contrast, self-assertion is important to having our needs met. Avoiding conflict and wanting to be liked lead to the denial of these needs.
How do emotional traits translate into cancerous skin lesions or other malignancies? The answer is that biology and psychology are not independent; each represents the functioning of a super system with components that can no longer be thought of as separate or autonomous mechanisms. The past quarter century of scientific inquiry has supplanted the traditional Western medical view of a split between body and mind with a truer, more unitary perspective. Our mind and body are one and our physiology, including our immune system, is directly affected by our emotions.
Thus the repression of emotions threatens not only our psychological health but also our physical well-being. It does so by suppressing our immune response. In turn, immune suppression leaves us susceptible to bacterial or viral invaders, or to malignant changes from within.