“Smoking no more causes cancer of the lung than being thrown into deep water causes drowning,” writes Gabor Maté, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside physician, addiction expert, and mind-body health guru, in his book When the Body Says No. “Smoking vastly increases the risk of cancer, not only of the lung but also of the bladder, the throat and other organs. But logic alone tells us it cannot, by itself, cause any of these malignancies… even if, in most cases, it might be a major and perhaps necessary contributing factor.”
No, I’m not a smoker, and no, I don’t think this absolves tobacco companies in any way. What is interesting to me here are the psychological factors involved, the mind-body connection. The scientific literature is now filled with studies that confirm stress to be a major contributing factor in pretty much all disease.
But life is stress, so how can we mitigate it, and exactly what kinds of stress are implicated here?
This is sensitive, because, being a cancer survivor myself, I definitely don’t want to be guilty of blaming the victim here. But cancer research has focused excessively on genetics (which play a very minor role in most cancers), and on unavoidable and isolated environmental carcinogens, and not enough on factors we have some control over.
That’s what I want to talk about right now: the risk factors we have some control over.
One study Maté cites in his discussion is a European one that found smokers had no incidence of lung cancer unless they also scored high in the emotional repression questionnaire.
So much for telling ourselves to suck it up and get on with it.
Why is emotional repression such a big risk? Cancer is most apt to occur in those with helplessness-prone personalities. And emotional repression, says Maté, is the first domino in the chain that leads to helplessness. It goes like this: emotional repression results in feelings of isolation because the true self is hidden, which inevitably results in feelings of loneliness, depression and helplessness. And to feel chronically helpless is of course to become truly helpless.
Note to self: the risks of not being true to myself, to what I think and feel and like, are greater than those that come with putting myself out there and risking judgment and disapproval. Emotional expression and integrity are essential to empowerment and to good health.
Thankfully, the traditional Western medical view of discrete mind and body is rapidly being discarded as archaic. Mind and body are inextricably interconnected. Though extremely unwieldy, the term psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology captures well the complexity of constant chemical communication between our thoughts, our nervous systems, our immune cells, and our endocrine glands.
The stress response can then clearly be triggered either psychologically or chemically, and it never hurts to avoid known carcinogens. But to worry about hidden ones everywhere is to cause more harm than it can possibly prevent—the most powerful psychic triggers of disease-inducing stress include uncertainty, lack of control, and feelings of being powerless to affect the course of our lives. A sense of control immediately rebalances and normalizes stress hormones.
In one experiment cited by Maté, where the relationships between female monkeys were manipulated, stress hormone production went up in animals forced to become subordinate, and down in those newly dominant. Stress hormones are interesting though. While chronically elevated stress hormones increase cancer risk, temporarily and sporadically elevated ones decrease it.
Final note to self (for today): avoid both chronic boredom and chronic stress, and remember to take a turn at asserting yourself.