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Holistic Approach to the Role of Emotions in Cancer

Cancer and emotions

The distress caused by certain trapped or blocked, unconscious and deeply buried emotions, do play a role in all the chronic diseases of lifestyle, of which cancer is an important example. This is not to say anybody causes their cancer on purpose! It’s meant to guide patients towards the essential release work involved in working with the trapped emotions that can play a causal role in cancer, which is all about cells growing wild, unrestrictedly and uncontrolled. ‘Why did this happen?’ might be a primal question of patients and their loved ones. Considering the possibility of trapped emotions might offer hope and a tool to work with. This can be done through transpersonal psychotherapy, emotional freedom techniques, positively inclined support group sessions, guided visualisations, hypnotherapy, etc.

In his book ‘Mind Matters – Psychological Medicine in Holistic Practice’, author JR Millendon, PhD comments on specific personality traits found in those experiencing cancer. These are suppression, repression, denial of negative feelings such as anger, depression and guilt, with a diminished outlet for emotional discharge. The cancer itself then becomes a kind of physical expression of the suppressed emotion. Of course, the diagnosis of cancer is highly emotive in itself and exacerbates stress.

In their book, ‘Creation of Health’, authors Carolyn Myss, PhD & Norman Shealy, MD, explains there are specific unconscious emotional links in breast cancer. Their findings are based on the breast as glands of nourishment in a woman’s body. Three patterns have emerged: severe ‘empty nest’ syndrome where women felt, deeply unconsciously, as though their reason for living has gone; or conversely, women who never had children might feel, totally unconsciously, that they haven’t fulfilled their duty as mothers, and also the same with women who never had children, either by choice, or circumstance. Once again, please note that these factors merely serve as possible guide posts to releasing deeply unconscious trapped emotions.

Learning mind body techniques such as guided imagery, hypnotherapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, yoga, Tai ‘chi, will help manage distress. Many people blame the stress in their lives for the development of cancer. Stress (or rather distress) does play a role in cancer, by affecting the production of hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol that can suppress the immune system. Stress does lead to an increased risk for cancer metastasising (spreading to other areas in the body) and to shorter survival rates. It has been shown that women with ovarian cancer who lack a good support system have more distress and more aggressive malignancies. This is just one example of the many psychological associations and biological markers for aggressive dis-ease.

Cancer prevention

When considering holistic integrative medicine principles, preventative advice is much the same as they are for those being treated for cancer – all referred to above.

The holistic, integrative approach in general, is much the same for all types of cancer. There are, however, some things that may help reduce the risk of specific cancers. For example, eating soy based foods (such as soy sauce, tofu, soy milk and yoghurt) during adolescence, does reduce the risk of breast and prostate cancers in Asians who maintain a traditional Asian diet. When they move to the United States, their diet changes and their risk becomes closer to a Western one than an Asian one. Reducing intake of red meat has been documented for preventing colorectal and pancreatic cancers.

Cancer and genetics

Some cancers are genetically determined, but even in breast cancer, there is only a 3-5% genetic predisposition. Thirty percent of cancer is related to tobacco use and is therefore preventable. Another forty percent is related to nutritional imbalances. Genetically determined cancers are not the majority, and even then it’s merely a potential risk and not an inevitability. Most cancer is related to environment, smoking, pollution, toxic overload, high stress levels based on specific trapped unconscious emotions, nutrition, physical inactivity and from potential risk to healthy cells that might be triggered by infections, such as the hepatitis virus, human papillomavirus and Epstein-Barr virus.


Five Stages of Grief (Elisabeth Kübler-Ross)

Stage Interpretation
1 – Denial Denial is a conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, reality, etc., relating to the situation concerned. It’s a defence mechanism and perfectly natural. Some people can become locked in this stage when dealing with a traumatic change that can be ignored. Death of course is not particularly easy to avoid or evade indefinitely.
2 – Anger Anger can manifest in different ways. People dealing with emotional upset can be angry with themselves, and/or with others, especially those close to them. Knowing this helps keep detached and non-judgemental when experiencing the anger of someone who is very upset.
3 – Bargaining Traditionally the bargaining stage for people facing death can involve attempting to bargain with whatever God the person believes in. People facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can we still be friends?..” when facing a break-up. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it’s a matter of life or death.
4 – Depression Also referred to as preparatory grieving. In a way it’s the dress rehearsal or the practice run for the ‘aftermath’ although this stage means different things depending on whom it involves. It’s a sort of acceptance with emotional attachment. It’s natural to feel sadness and regret, fear, uncertainty, etc. It shows that the person has at least begun to accept the reality.
5 – Acceptance Again this stage definitely varies according to the person’s situation, although broadly it is an indication that there is some emotional detachment and objectivity. People dying can enter this stage a long time before the people they leave behind, who must necessarily pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief.

(Based on the Grief Cycle model first published in On Death & Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 1969. Interpretation by Alan Chapman 2006-2013.)

While Kübler-Ross’s focus was on death and bereavement, the grief cycle model is a useful perspective for understanding our own and other people’s emotional reaction to personal trauma, after diagnosis and living with a severe illness like cancer and change, irrespective of cause.

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