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Many people are interested in the relationship between cancer and psychological factors, such as emotions and stress.
Research studies have looked at the following questions:
Although the idea has been popular for a long time, there’s no scientific evidence to show that people with certain personality types are more likely to get cancer. A cancer diagnosis may understandably make people feel anxious|, low or depressed|, but this does not mean that the two things are linked. In fact, people who are told this may feel that they are to blame for their cancer, which can cause them unnecessary distress.
Many people believe that their cancer was caused by the stress of a traumatic event, or being exposed to stressful situations over a long period of time. It’s very difficult to research whether stress can cause cancer, as what causes stress in one person may not be seen as stressful for another. At the moment, studies show that psychological and environmental stress can result in slight changes to the body’s immune system, but there’s no evidence that this can cause cancer or affect its growth.
Some people feel that a positive attitude helps when coping with cancer and its treatments. However, a positive attitude means different things to different people, so this doesn’t mean you have to be cheerful all the time. Cancer can make people feel helpless and too tired to be positive and ‘fight’ the cancer. This does not mean that their attitude lowers their chance of a good outcome from treatment. It’s important to talk to your doctor or nurse if you feel anxious or depressed, as help is available for your psychological as well as your physical needs. There’s evidence that a positive attitude improves a person’s quality of life. However, trying to be positive should not become a burden. Very few people are optimistic all the time, and it’s natural and understandable to feel down sometimes.
Anything that helps you cope in your own way is valuable. Many self-help books are based on the principle that a change in attitude to having cancer may affect the outlook. This idea influences many complementary approaches to cancer. The effect of these approaches is very difficult to evaluate properly, but many people find them helpful and they can contribute to a sense of well-being and quality of life.
Content last reviewed: 1 October 2011
Next planned review: 2013
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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