Cancer As a Turning Point: A Handbook for People with Cancer, Their Families, and Health Professionals
Lawrence LeShan

A life-changing book.
Includes a series of reflective exercises designed to help you contact your inner self, the desires and wants and hopes that have been suppressed in the desire to conform to the expectations of others.

Dr. Carl Simonton's Getting Well: A Step-by Step, Self-Help Guide to Overcoming Cancer for Patients and their Families
O. Carl Simonton, Stephanie Matthews-Simonton and James Creighton

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Joan Borysenko with Larry Rothstein

Guilt is the Teacher, Love is the Lesson
Joan Borysenko

The Power of the Mind to Heal
Joan Borysenko and Miroslav Borysenko

A cancer-prone personality?

Although almost everyone agrees that it is beneficial for cancer patients to work with their emotions, there has been much controversy about the subject of a “cancer-prone personality.”

The connection between cancer and emotions, particularly with the emotions of grief and hopelessness, was described in the medical literature dating back to the nineteenth century. But this idea went out of favor in the mid twentieth century with scientific advances in cancer treatment. More recently, however, some researchers have been investigating this connection again.

They are finding that people who have cancer have a tendency to not express anger, to suppress their emotions, and to be overly compliant. Dr. Bernie Siegel and Dr. Lawrence LeShan have commented on the sense of hopelessness apparent in many cancer patients even before their condition was diagnosed, noting that cancer has also been linked to grief and deep sadness or sense of loss. It is thought that these and related emotions depress immunity and allow the growth of cancer.[1]

Dr. Andrew Weil, expert on mind-body medicine, states: “Health professionals who see a lot of cancer patients often describe them as ‘nice’—that is, pleasant, inoffensive, unwilling to make trouble, apologetic for being sick. This frequent observation has given rise to the notion of a ‘cancer personality.’ In many ways it is just the opposite of the heart-attack personality with its tendency to rage.”[2]

Although Dr. Weil says that “it is reasonable to assume that living with a lot of unexpressed or unfelt grief and anger doesn’t do you or your immune system any good,” he believes that until further research is done, the concept of a cancer-prone personality is nothing more than an interesting idea.[3]

Many doctors are opposed to the concept of a link between cancer and personality. Understandably, they do not want patients to subject themselves to needless blame or guilt, feeling that they had “caused” their cancer. Many, such as Dr. John Link, believe that “one’s choices are not responsible for breast cancer.”[4]

I understand that blame and guilt are not helpful emotions, yet I do believe that my choices have an impact in my life and health. I see that as my accountability, without a sense of blame or guilt—I have a choice as to how I reacted to life’s circumstances. I also realized that if I were honest with myself, I could not lightly dismiss the traits of the “cancer-prone personality” I could see clearly. I felt that could not wait for the connection to be proven scientifically before beginning to work on correcting these things, and whether or not this would make a difference in my physical healing, it was something I needed to work on for the healing of my soul.

Interestingly, if there were one word to describe my pre-cancer personality, it would have to be “nice.” All my life, I have been described as a “nice” person, and I worked hard to be thought of that way. I even used to joke with my husband about the “nice Neroli”—the face I showed to the world. I usually complied with the wishes of other people, avoided confrontations, tended to swallow my emotions rather than express them, and went out of my way to help others—even to my own detriment. Now that I had breast cancer, I knew that I needed to change, and I had to find out more about the subject.

For anyone wanting to go down this path, a great place to start is Cancer as a Turning Point, a fantastic book by psychotherapist Lawrence LeShan. He notes that individuals with cancer often show the traits of passivity, despair, and suppression of emotional expression.

He writes, “The best of the new research that has appeared in recent years has presented results pointing out that psychological factors do play a part in how and when people become sick and how their immune systems function when they are sick. Psychological factors are certainly only one part of the process—no one ‘makes themselves sick’ by how they behave or feel. Other factors such as heredity and the physical environment play a major role as well. You are not responsible for becoming ill, and you are not responsible for your recovery. What you are responsible for once you are ill is to do your best to get better. This means getting the best medical treatment possible and changing your life so that your inner healing abilities will be stimulated to the highest level possible.”[5]

Dr. LeShan speaks of patients who deal with cancer on all three levels of human life—physical, psychological, and spiritual. After years working with cancer patients, he has found that those who consciously work on all three levels tend to do better than those who do not. He also believes that the big changes happen inside and not outside the patient. “The inside is the important and crucial place that change needs to take place if we are trying to move our immune system to higher levels of functioning. Changes in the outer life may or may not occur, they may be dramatic when they do, but they are reflections of our inner change.”[6]

At the end of the book is a series of exercises designed to help the individual contact the inner self, the desires and wants and hopes that have been suppressed in the desire to conform to the expectations of others.

Dr. LeShan found that as patients worked through these exercises and tapped the unexpressed potential of the soul and spirit, the inner resources of the physical body would also be activated. He has many stories of almost miraculous healings in people once they found their real purpose in life and began to live it. As I worked through the exercises, I gained new insight into my life and the choices I made each day.

Even more telling than Dr. LeShan’s description of character traits was the discussion of stress and how people deal with problems in life. I could see that although there were situations in my life that were beyond my control, I could have handled my reaction to them much better. I did not have to see myself as a victim.

This was one of the most important things that I worked on with my psychologist. I also worked on this with Bach Flower Remedies, homeopathy, and essential oils. Here is where I believe that I made some of my greatest personal progress. It has changed the way that I think about myself and how I approach my life today.


1. Andrew Weil, Natural Health, Natural Medicine: A Comprehensive Manual for Wellness and Self-Care (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), p. 188.

2. John Link, Breast Cancer Survival Manual, Fourth Edition: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Woman With Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer (New York: Henry Holt, 1998), p. 135.

3. Ibid., p. 189.

4. Ibid., p. 135.

5. Lawrence LeShan, CCancer As a Turning Point: A Handbook for People with Cancer, Their Families, and Health Professionals (New York: Plume, 1994), p. xii.

6. Ibid., pp. 24, 29.


Excerpted from A Journey through Cancer, by Neroli Duffy