Smoking, Emotional Integrity, and Cancer

“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.

6 thoughts on “Smoking, Emotional Integrity, and Cancer

  1. Loved this post. My dad died from complications due to lung cancer and I often think about how many other unknown variables must have been at work.

    Great review of the research. It’s nice to see some people finally approaching the mind-body connection empirically. Most of the study results make sense to anyone who has thought about this stuff before, but none of it gains traction in the western medical world until it has been quantified in a well-designed experiment or two.

    Not many people know that some of Dr. Oz’s most novel research tested whether or not heart patients had better surgical outcomes when their pre-op and post-op care included things like massage, guided meditation, and other relaxation therapies. Of course they did, but it’s all treated like new-age mumbo jumbo until someone systematically tests it.

    Most people don’t have a problem with understanding that hormones affect our health, behavior, and longevity, but why stop there? Hormones regulate us. What regulates the hormones? For many of the hormones the answer is “our brains.” Since that’s also the container for our minds, it really shouldn’t be too hard to acknowledge that mind-body connection. Now all we need to do is research the snot out of it so it can be accepted as part of that holy grail “evidence-based practice.”

    Anyway, great piece.

    • Thanks for reading, and for your comments about “evidence-based” medicine. I obviously appreciate what medicine has to offer (my life, in my case), but I’m an extremely cautious consumer too, and have followed up my treatment with massage, meditation, and TCM. Have you read David Newman’s Hippocrates’ Shadow? (I think every med student should!)

      I’m very sorry about your dad; you seem too young to have lost a parent.

      • Thanks. I wish I felt young! I started to feel my body’s aging process at 20. People told me I was crazy, “too young to be saying things like that,” but I could feel it. My dad’s death seemed like it came at an appropriate time in my life, and his, though when I see 60-year-olds who still have two healthy parents I sometimes reconsider.

        I haven’t read Newman’s book, though I will check it out. And if you keep writing, I’ll keep reading.

    • I’m beyond lying and cheating. It’s just the nature of peolpe and not just mens. But my disappointment in mens are a few things: lack of appearence, there triffling ways of how they treat women, how some don’t work and depend on women to take care of them. I like a nice clean cut person that have respect for his mother. When you see a man have so much respect for his mother they tend to treat the woman that they are with much respect and treat her the way he would want a man to treat his mother. I always tell my nephew that treat a girl the way you want somebody to treat your mother and you &#;0#;h&5111;&#1171vd be happy. Happiness is number one. I’m not saying that you should allow a person to dog you out becuz you don’t have to put up with that at all.I hope this help some.

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