It was wonderful to have received so many comments on our recent blog post! It’s always been a goal that our blog serve as an information source, but have also looked forward to the day when it would serve as a conversation starter-a way to get people talking to each other about the issues that matter to cancer patients and survivors.
We received a firestorm of comments in response to what is actually one of the older posts on the blog entitled, “Could Resentment be a Risk Factor for Cancer?” You can read the post and the comments, and the conversation didn’t stop there-it continued on our Facebook page as well. Some people were in agreement that repressed emotions can negatively affect our health, but others were incensed that I would even suggest this to be a possibility, especially where cancer is concerned.
Here’s what was interesting in reaction to this one post, I was told I was “doing a disservice to the men and women affected by cancer” with the headline and general message, and told it “wasn’t fair” to say that stress and emotional problems are the “only thing” that causes cancer and other illnesses. Other responders jumped on the “positive thinking” idea, commenting on how expecting cancer patients to be upbeat all the time does more harm than good, and that the pressure many cancer patients feel to “be positive” is very damaging.
Here’s the thing-we don’t mention “thinking positive” once in the post. Not once. Nor did we say that emotional problems are the only thing that causes cancer. Far from it. We all know that any disease is the result of a myriad of factors, from diet to activity level to genetics to environment to viruses to chemical exposure to you name it. We have posted about all of these factors on this blog, with the number of posts about emotional factors making up only a small minority of the total.
I was told I was silly for suggesting that fixing bad moods would keep you cancer free. Never did I mention “moods,” or any fleeting emotions. Never did I say that fixing your emotions would keep you cancer free. I spoke solely about one lasting, particularly difficult emotion-resentment-and what science is saying about its potential link to cancer.
Some comments suggested that looking into the possibility that resentment could have an effect on health-and potentially on cancer-is just another way to “blame the patient.” But I don’t understand why, when talking about emotions, we jump to the conclusion we’re blaming, yet we can talk about diet and activity and everyone accepts it as perfectly fine? Don’t we have equal control over what we eat or how much we move as we do over how we handle emotions? We may not be able to control how we feel, but we do have control over what we do about it-and science is showing that learning how to deal with negative emotions could be just as important as learning to eat less sugar! Think of it this way: We may not be able to control our sugar cravings, but we can and do control whether or not we eat that chocolate cake. Why can’t it be the same when we’re dealing with emotions?
Some people commented that Louise Hay-whom I mention in the post-is “irresponsible” for promoting emotional therapy as a cure for cancer. I happen to admire Ms. Hay because her books have helped many. Of course I wasn’t there during her cancer. Her story is her story, and it’s a very individual one, as all our stories are. Whether you believe she cured her cancer or not really doesn’t matter. The point is that she is a prominent figure who has helped a lot of people with her theories, one of which is that resentment can be damaging to your health. She says it was to hers. And she’s still here, and cancer free.
The bottom line is that this post has nothing to do with positive thinking or bad moods or fleeting emotions causing cancer, or about blaming the patient. It’s all about how resentment-that negative emotion you hold inside you for long periods of time-has been shown in scientific studies to be damaging to your health, particularly to the immune system, in ways that have been linked to cancer. My purpose in publishing it was to help make people aware of this connection. I have done the same with a myriad of other risk factors, including an unhealthy diet, inactivity, exposure to chemicals, and more, and I’m going to continue writing about risk factors, whatever they are.
Just to be clear: could resentment be a risk factor for cancer? Science says it could. Will getting rid of resentment cure cancer? Doubtful. No one thing is a magic bullet. Could getting rid of resentment help you avoid cancer? Who knows? But if it is a potential risk factor, why not do all we can to decrease that risk? Why not, while we’re eating more fruits and vegetables and exercising at least 30 minutes a day, learn how to let go of such a toxic emotion? We’d all do better, feel healthier, and “perhaps” live longer if we forgive more often, and unburden ourselves.
Now, as to the whole “positive thinking” thing, since that’s what so many people commented about. This is a totally different animal, and it’s obviously a hot topic-one that’s on a lot of people’s minds. In the cancer community, “positive thinking” has come to mean “thou shalt think and say only positive things no matter how awful thou feels.” Has there been too much of this mantra in the cancer community? Obviously, yes!
What started out as something that was supposed to help people stay strong and fight the disease has turned into a “demand” that many people just can’t live up to. To tell a dear friend to “think positive” when she has just been diagnosed is absolutely ridiculous, but our current cancer culture has created a “groupthink” that makes people do just that.
My stance on all this positivity? I believe in being positive in my life. I like looking on the bright side of things whenever I can. I think it makes life easier to live. Never would I tell someone who’s emotionally down, however, to “buck up and be positive.” That would only serve to make them feel worse. What I would encourage-and what I think is of utmost importance to our health-is to process those negative emotions. Talk to a friend, journal, listen to music, paint, exercise, talk to a therapist, scream, cry, punch a pillow, or curl up in a ball if that’s what it takes. Make an appointment with yourself if you have to! Feel that pain or that sadness or that despair or whatever it is and take the time to feel it fully. Then, and only then, let it go and move on.
An example: Researchers found that breast cancer patients who coped by expressing their emotions surrounding the cancer had fewer medical appointments, enhanced physical health and vigor, and decreased distress.1 In a study on women with breast cancer who used online support groups, those who expressed both positive and negative emotions experienced psychological benefits.2
The key thing here is express the emotion in a healthy way (don’t kill the dog, in other words), then let go. Do what it takes to get the emotion “through” you. It’s when we don’t take the time to feel things-when we stuff them down to deal with “later” (as in resentment)-that we can encourage health problems. If nothing else, it encourages stress-and haven’t we all agreed that stress can influence our health?
Where does the “think positive” come in? Once we process our emotions-take the time to feel them and pay attention to them-this frees us up to then summon our positive energy again. We can go out with friends, do something that makes us feel good, and work on generating good feelings. That’s the only kind of “positive thinking” I can endorse. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind we hear about most of the time surrounding cancer.
We are emotional creatures. That’s one of the beautiful things about human beings. We are meant to feel. To tell anyone-especially those experiencing all the traumas of disease-to just ignore all the negative feelings and focus only on the positive, will only make everything worse. What we can do is encourage ourselves and others to pay attention to those feelings, address them, do something about them, and then let them go.
In summary: Science says that there may be a link between resentment and cancer-good to know. I believe we can feel healthier when we learn how to fully feel and process-rather than stuff down-our emotions, whatever they may be. But this is totally different from the “think positive” idea as it relates to the cancer community, and when it comes to that, I agree with most of you-it’s time to accept our feelings, wholeheartedly…and then learn how to better deal with them in ways that benefit our health.
I’m looking forward to blogging more about this issue in the future! In the meantime, please, write in, whatever your thoughts. I don’t care if you agree or don’t. The more we discuss these things, the better chance we all have of not only living healthier lives, but understanding more fully the complex, beautiful creatures we are.
Thanks again for all the input. Light and love to you all!
Do you have thoughts on how emotions may affect our health? Or on the whole “positive thinking” culture surrounding cancer? Please share!
- Stanton A.L., Danoff-Burg S., Cameron C.L., Bishop M., Collins C.A., Kirk S.B, Sworowski L.A., Twillman R. Emotionally expressive coping predicts psychological and physical adjustment to breast cancer. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 2000 Oct;68(5):875-82. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11068973?dopt=Abstract.
- Jeong Yeob Han. Expressing Positive Emotions within Online Support Groups by Women with Breast Cancer. Journal of Health Psychology Vol. 13, No. 8, 1002-1007 (2008) DOI: 10.1177/1359105308097963.
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