Cancer Support: (6) Adverse Childhood Experiences, Emotional Health & Personality Traits

So far in this cancer support series we’ve looked at diet and nutrition debates around cancer, the genetic factors that make you more likely to be one of the 1 in 2, plus steps you can take to lower your overall risk of disease.

Another way your health history can factor in your cancer risk is the influence it can have on your emotional and social health and on your personality.

We pick up default traits depending upon life experiences and to some degree the socialisation processes from our family environment and peers.

Before I begin to outline some of the links between mental health and cancer it’s important that you acknowledge the real takeaway is it’s vital you nourish yourself emotionally with mindfulness-based activities, self-care, supportive relationships and therapies NOT worry about the fact you’re a worrier!

Cancer and Personality Traits

There’s an exploration of personality traits that may be associated with cancer.

This paper mentions neuroticism, extraversion, conscientiousness, and optimism. It makes sense, if you’re a worrier you’re more likely to have compromised emotional health which alters you biochemically, possibly generating more inflammatory processes.

It may also create an excessive reliance on work, exercise, food as a distraction from negative thoughts, or either smoking, alcohol or drugs as a tranquiliser from worries.

Personality traits may not only contribute to your risk of disease, including cancer but could also influence treatment outcomes.

Mental distress, fatigue and poorer quality of life are significantly associated with higher neuroticism and lower optimism during cancer screening, diagnosis, and treatment. Neuroticism is also a strong predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by a cancer diagnosis.

Working in a clinical setting for over a decade this is something I also observe frequently. Highly empathetic, conscientious individuals who tend towards perfectionism are much more likely to overdeliver on every level and sacrifice their own health needs to prioritise those of employers, partners, kids, family and friends.

Eventually, the situation catches up with the body.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Cancer

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are events that occur during childhood. They can trigger alterations in brain development and the body’s stress responses which has implications for both mental health and the immune system.

ACE’s identified so far include:

  • Physical/sexual/emotional abuse
  • Physical/sexual/emotional neglect
  • Exposure to substance abuse
  • Death of a parent
  • Parents’ divorcing
  • Exposure to mental illness
  • Witnessing violence against a parent
  • Having a close relative sent to prison

It’s likely more will be established in future.

ACE’s are associated with an increased risk for conditions like depression, asthma, diabetes and cancer. It’s also linked to an increased likelihood of participating in risk-based behaviours like smoking and heavy drinking.

CDC Vital Signs

Image from CDC.

Effective Emotional Support Strategies

Addressing these default personality traits and the possible impact of ACE’s is often one of the toughest aspects of your health to change.

It can have a hugely beneficial impact too.

Whilst many people are busy giving themselves grief over their lack of willpower and dependency on food, caffeine, drugs, smoking or alcohol, the real issue is some unresolved emotional complications.

Untangling this process begins with developing some awareness rather than living each day on autopilot.

Journaling, counselling and other talking therapies can help you step out of your head and see the reality of the situation, rather than you’re chattering brains interpretation.

I have personally benefitted from following the work of Ruby Wax, Mo Gawdat and Gabor Mate. I also really enjoy meditations and positive affirmations by Burgs on YouTube, many have a similar message but it’s one I need to hear daily.

Each has helped me make sense of my mental health and identify the fictional scenarios it likes to create each day.

There are numerous things that may help you improve your mental health, here are a few you can explore:

  • Mindfulness-based therapies
  • Meditation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Yoga and Yoga Therapy
  • Tai Chi or Qigong
  • Neurolinguistic Programming
  • Emotional Freedom Technique
  • Eye Movement Desensitisation
  • Talking Therapies
  • Cold Therapy
  • Volunteering
  • Learning new skills, hobbies and crafts
  • Spending time in nature
  • Walking
  • Journaling

Sometimes I find the easiest thing to do is lie down and listen to playlists on Spotify. Here’s one I’ve put together that mixes up film scores and meditations to music. You can listen here.

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