It was once thought that people with certain personality traits were particularly susceptible to cancer. Neurotic people and introverts, in particular, were believed to be especially at risk for developing the disease. Personality type was also thought to play a role in whether people stricken with cancer would die of it.
In the early 1960s, for example, a study tentatively found that male lung cancer patients were more likely to be extroverted and less likely to be neurotic than males without cancer. A study from the early 1980s suggested that people with lower levels of neuroticism and anxiety, as measured on standardized tests, were at an increased risk of breast cancer. Many of these studies were discredited because they involved small numbers of people, were poorly designed, and poorly run. Another problem was that some scientific journals tended to publish studies showing a link between cancer and personality, while rejecting studies that found no link. The result, according to the American Cancer Society, was a widespread belief that there is a scientific basis for cancer-prone personality types.
Recent research has largely debunked such notions. A 2010 study involving 60,000 people in Sweden and Finland found no link between personality and overall cancer risk, and no link between personality traits and cancer survival. A Japanese study from 2003 looked for a connection between four personality traits – extraversion, neuroticism, psychoticism, and deception – and four different types of cancer. It found none.
Even though there doesn’t appear to be a biological connection between personality type and cancer risk, certain traits are associated with behaviors that can raise or lower that risk. For example, highly health-conscious people are unlikely to engage in activities – like smoking, overeating, or basking in the sun too long – associated with cancer. People who pay less attention to diet and exercise may put themselves at higher risk for the disease.
“Although there is no biological association between personality traits and risk for cancer, how an individual copes with cancer can have a positive effect on reducing distress and improving quality of life,” says Halyna Vitagliano, MD, MSci, a specialist in psychosocial oncology at Dana-Farber. “Good coping strategies include getting enough sleep; maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet; exercising; engaging in emotionally meaningful activities; and nurturing supportive relationships with loved ones. Good coping also means avoiding behaviors that are known biological risk factors for cancer, such as exposure to the sun’s harmful UV light, drinking excessively, and smoking. Good self-care and resilience go a long way in navigating the cancer journey.”