Are certain personality types more likely to get cancer? Since we know that our personality affects how we live and what we do, personality can be a significant puzzle piece in our overall health. Many years ago, studies found that people with a “Type A” personality and traits such as impatience, frustration, and hostility, had a greater risk of heart attack than people with more easy-going personalities. The search for links between personality and cancer has turned up some interesting connections … and debunked some internet myths.
Certain personality traits may reduce your risk of cancer but not because of the traits themselves, but rather for what those traits lead you to do. For example, personality types who are positively engaged about their health will see their physicians regularly, eat healthful foods, and exercise regularly—all known factors that reduce their risk of cancer. Personality types that are more impulsive, reckless, and less likely to even give a thought for their health increase their risk of cancer, but it is because they are more likely to smoke, drink to excess, be sedentary, and eat poorly. No scientifically sound studies have found that stress or grief can cause cancer. While prolonged emotional stress or profound grief can weaken the immune system, nobody has found any proof that these things cause cancer. So while persistent stress and grief are not good for your health, there is no indication that they increase your risk for cancer.
An interesting study from the University of Michigan found that people with plenty of social ties, including friends, family, and a sense of belonging to a community, had a lower overall death rate than loners—from all causes, including but not limited to cancer. Researchers suggest that having a social network causes us to take better care of ourselves and, if we do feel sick or threatened, to get support. Social people who face illness or any type of setback may feel less vulnerable because of their built-in support system. Moreover, these people-who-need-people are also more likely to hear positive advice and reinforcing messages about a healthy lifestyle from the folks who love them. A person surrounded by family and friends will be urged (maybe even nagged) to go to the doctor when symptoms occur. On the other hand, people who seek an isolated lifestyle and actively avoid making friends or having contact with others die at an earlier age. Loners can pursue poor lifestyle choices with little opposition. When a crisis hits, the isolated individual has no one to turn to and may feel deeply threatened. A person with no friends or family who faces a devastating illness may simply not have people around to provide help and support. Thus, wanting to live without friends and family does not cause cancer, but it makes it harder to live a healthful lifestyle and to cope with a potentially life-threatening illness. Some physicians have observed in their practice that cancer patients behave in similar ways. This may not be surprising in that all people faced with a cancer diagnosis are in a similar situation: fearful, stressed, confused. It has been stated that cancer patients are punctual, polite, submissive, and reserved.
These cancer patients often report “unfulfilled passions,” that is, they did not have a chance to do some of the things they had wanted to do, whether that was traveling to Paris or learning to play the piano. No hard science backs those claims up. For instance, it could be that learning one has cancer will make one show up at the doctor’s office on time and be docile and polite as the doctor explains treatment options. When a person is first diagnosed with cancer and faces her own mortality, it probably makes her acutely aware of all the things she wanted to do in life. Thus, these may not be so much personality traits as common behaviors in people facing a similar situation. It has been argued that some personality traits help people cope better with cancer. For instance, being tough or having a fighting spirit is thought to be helpful to endure cancer treatment. While this may be true, it is difficult for science to measure this sort of thing. Besides that, many people do not really find out how tough they are until they are faced with a crisis. While a strong, fighting personality is useful, it may not be an everyday personality trait. When it comes to coping with cancer and enduring cancer treatment, social ties also have a strong positive effect.
Being surrounded by family and friends really does matter. The point is that some perfectly happy, strong, smart people get cancer and some people who are a hot mess do not. Our best defenses are a healthy lifestyle, exercise, regular checkups and friends and family. Maybe friends and family come at the top of that list!