Type A Personality and Cancer

Jane Biehl, Ph.D.

I often wonder how many of us diagnosed with cancer are Type A personalities; or were before we became ill. By definition, Type A people often have excess ambition, can be aggressive, competitive, driven, and have a need to constantly be in control. Many times, these characteristics are linked to people who suffer from coronary disease and other stress-related ailments. While most of the articles I researched cannot find a direct link between cancer and personality types, experts generally agree that the better care we take of ourselves, the stronger our immune system is, and our ability to recover from cancer is increased. This is simply common sense.

I feel very strongly that stress affects every part of our body. I think about the times I have a simple hangnail. If I let it go – it stays the same. But if I begin to pull at it instead of using nail clippers to cut it off, and mess around with it and cause it to bleed, it gets worse. If we make a simple little flap of skin worse by irritating it, just imagine what we do to ourselves when we stress the rest of our body.

I am sure most patients, like me, grieve and mourn our old lives after we are diagnosed. We remember what we used to do, all that we achieved in a single day, and feel we aren’t accomplishing much of anything. That old Type A personality comes back to haunt us. I find myself at the end of a day thinking I puttered around and did not get much done, thus I wasted my time.

At least this is what I used to think, until I read this quote from the famous Henry James: “Live all you can, it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t matter so much what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that, what have you had?”

Wait a minute – it IS my life! If I now spend time gazing at the gorgeous fall colors and taking pictures, this is my life now. If I take an afternoon nap so I can stay up and watch a football game, this is my life now. If I want to go out to lunch with friends for a couple of hours to talk, this is my life now.

We need to redefine ourselves and our lives. This lesson is not just for people who have cancer or another disease, but for people who are retired, or simply want a change in lifestyle. Instead of taking on more jobs, adding increased responsibilities, volunteering out the wazoo and keeping a perfect house, we can sit back and “live all we can.”

The guilt we put on ourselves with the help of society is just that: guilt. Shrug it off and forget about doing more. Live, breathe and enjoy. It is our life and we can treasure it to our very last breath!
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