Anaximperator blog

Blogging against alternative cancer treatments

No Link Found Between Personality Traits, Positive Thinking, Depression and Cancer


Many people are convinced that a positive attitude is helpful –  if not essential – to survive or ward off cancer.

The belief that we can control illness and even death with our mind has great appeal, because it makes us feel as though we are in control of our life events.

The downside is that when we are not doing so well – for example when we are hit by cancer – we have only ourselves to blame for our misery.

But how true is it that we are the main custodians of our own well-being?

Personality traits and development of cancer

In 1996, Eveline Bleiker, Ph.D., of The Netherlands Cancer Institute and colleagues found a weak association between the development of breast cancer and anti-emotionality – a lack of emotional behavior or trust in one’s own feelings. No other personality traits were associated with breast cancer risk in this study. However, in a follow-up study of 2007 with the same group of about 9,700 women, the researchers did not find any personality trait or personality profile that was associated with increased breast cancer risk – a so called “cancer-prone” personality.

Depression and cancer

It has long been thought that depression reduces the body’s immunological defenses, which in turn would cause depressed persons to have a higher the risk of developing cancer, but research has shown that this does not seem to be the case with cancer.

Having cancer may cause depression – now there’s a surprise – but there is no evidence of depression increasing the risk of developing cancer.

According to this study, having a positive attitude does not affect cancer survival. The study included more than 1,000 people treated for head and neck cancer and the emotional state of patients was found to have no influence on survival, which led to the conclusion that there is no credible evidence that positive thinking influences tumor growth.

Attitude and cancer survival: the tyranny of positive thinking

In her book The Human Side of Cancer, Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty, psychiatrist Jimmie C. Holland of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center refers to this phenomenon as “the tyranny of positive thinking.” She and other scientists say the misplaced confidence that a patient’s emotional state is an important factor in cancer survival can become a burden to cancer patients, who can be made to believe that  if they are not doing well it is somehow their own fault because they aren’t positive enough.

In this video Olympic swimming champion and cancer survivor Maarten van der Weijden explains why he doesn’t agree that positive thinking and lots of exercise have been instrumental in his surviving leukemia and why he thinks it is dangerous to foist this unfounded notion on cancer patients.

After she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, Barbara Ehrenreich also wrote about the consequences of this tyranny of positive thinking and her personal experiences with it in her book Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America And The World.

See also:

10 responses to “No Link Found Between Personality Traits, Positive Thinking, Depression and Cancer

  1. Bram Hengeveld April 25, 2009 at 11:51 am

    do you have a direct weblink to the new study?

  2. beatis April 25, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Here it is:

    I’ve added the right link in the post now as well. Bleiker’s e-mail address is in the abstract, should you want to contact her.

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  5. Carla January 4, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    I’ve read this article/information carefully several times, and tend to think it very comforting in comparison to the belief that if one is not “optimistic” (enough) one is(partially/possibly) to blame for one’s own illness/cancer. How cruel is that (additional) burden on any patient?

    But in my mind the question remains, what with longterm grief (depression) and/or stress? Isn’t that undermining the imune system and a possible cause for all kinds of ailments, diseases (even possibly cancer)?

  6. beatis January 4, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    It appears that holocaust suvivors are at a higher risk to develop cancer, but as far as I know this is due to the harsh physical conditions in the concentration camps:

    I think too much stress for a long time can never be healthy, but I also think one must be careful not to confuse stress factors with a person’s mental attitude or personality traits.

    There is no indication that chronic feelings of depression affect a person’s likelihood of developing cancer.

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  8. cho-cho February 11, 2010 at 8:26 am

    nice share. anw, you can find more about cancer here

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  10. That Guy September 19, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    I’ll stick with my positive thinking, it may not save your life, but it makes it a happier one.

    Speaking of wich, maybe not cure, but I’d say it does help a bit easing pain and so on, maybe one of the docs in here can confirm it, correct breathing techniques too, when you are relaxed and happier pain lessens, at least, it does for me, and it is doing so for my shoulder right now.

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