Personality and Cancer


Bob Riter
Bob Riter

Clients often tell me the weird things that people say in response to their cancer diagnoses. Most often, these comments are well-intentioned, but awkward.

One comment recently shared with me, though, was exceptional in its absurdity. And it was made by a close relative of a person recently diagnosed with cancer. It was along the lines of, “You need to go into therapy to find out what caused your cancer.”

Aside from inappropriately blaming the person with cancer for causing her cancer, it suggests that cancer is a result of one’s thought-processes or personality. That’s a myth.

The possibility that some personalities are more prone to cancer has been studied for years, and the overwhelming evidence is that cancer risk is NOT related to personality. Gloomy pessimists get cancer. Sunny optimists get cancer. People of every personality type get cancer.

Anyone who spends time in an oncology office knows this. Cancer is an equal opportunity disease.

Many people also believe that personality affects the outcome if cancer is diagnosed. Everyone with cancer has been told, “You have to stay positive!”

But cancer is a biological process, and one’s attitude has not been shown to affect the likelihood of survival. It does, however, affect your cancer experience in countless other ways, including your ability to make good decisions and how pleasant you are to the people around you.

And what difference would it make if personality and attitude did affect one’s risk for developing or surviving cancer? Does telling a person to be positive actually make them positive? Of course not. We are who we are.

There are many things that we can do to lessen our risk of cancer and increase the likelihood that we’ll survive if diagnosed. We can exercise, eat more fruits and vegetables, maintain a healthy body weight, reduce our exposure to sun, and not use tobacco.

But no one should imply that your thinking, your attitudes, or your personality caused your cancer. It just isn’t true.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal
Publication date: May 31, 2014