The Causes and the Psychology of Cancer

Psychodynamic research

Many years ago I discovered and was impressed by the meaningful psychodynamic research findings of C.B. Bahnson and M.B. Bahnson concerning the psychodynamic dimension of cancer. Years later, already familiar with flower essence therapy, I considered the idea of using flower essences to address the negative emotions which Drs. Bahnson & Bahnson associated with cancer. The idea was to try to help certain relatives or friends of mine, suffering from cancer.

At about the same time, I heard about the work of Dr. O. Carl Simonton and his wife, Stephanie Matthews-Simonton, on a holistic approach in the treatment of cancer, presented in their book Getting Well Again. Their findings, as well as those of other researchers, seemed to verify the mental-emotional “profile” of cancer already suggested in the Bahnsons’ wonderful work. 

I started giving flower essences to cancer patients, watching for the results, while at the same time examining whether the supposed “cancer-type” psychological profile was present in them. I found that it always was.

Flower essences proved to be of great help in making people suffering from cancer feel very much better. Most importantly, they seemed to allow a profound change in the way cancer patients were handling their problems, resulting in much healthier patterns of behavior regarding the type of psychological tensions associated with cancer.

The particular changes in the psychodynamic balance seemed to work very positively in the direction of giving strength to the organism, restoring “the will to live,” helping to respond positively to the medical treatments and moving towards cure. Also, the deep changes of attitude that occurred seemed to serve as a wonderful means in the effort to prevent future recurrences of the problem. 

What “causes cancer”? 

As we know, every day our bodies produce cancer cells which our immune system destroys, thus keeping us healthy. In the case of cancer, the immune system ceases doing this, so cancer cells build up and create tumors, which finally take hold of the whole organism.

The so called “cause of cancer” is considered to be unknown. The numerous potentially harmful influences such as foods or other materials, environmental pollution, unhealthy life habits, heritage and the “genes of cancer” etc., usually blamed for this problem, should be viewed as predisposing factors rather than as causes themselves.

This explains why only a number and not the totality of people affected by these factors eventually become ill, and why no prediction as to whether, when and under which conditions illness will appear, can be made.

Similarly, the existing therapies such as surgery, radio-/chemo-therapy etc., fail to cure all of the same-type cancer patients, the prognosis for whom remains unknown. If the cure of cancer depended exclusively on these treatments, then why do some people respond positively to them while others do not? 

Facts like these can be considered as clear indications that, besides the many physical factors directly affecting the body, other factors must be playing a very important role in the creation as well as in the possible recurrence of cancer in a particular human organism. 

There is an aspect of the human condition, which may provide essential information in the process of understanding this disease – the aspect of the underlying mental-emotional situation of a person who eventually becomes a cancer patient. Although very important research has taken place in this field during the last decades, findings have not yet attracted the attention of either the medical community or the general public to any considerable degree. 

Some of us may be familiar with theories about a “cancer personality,” a type of personality that predisposes to cancer. Although there may be truth in these theories, life shows that it is better to consider a particular “state of mind” rather than a certain personality type. It seems that everybody can find themselves experiencing a cancer-type of stress, at a certain time in their lives, under specific conditions.

Defining the “psychology of cancer”

In trying to describe the various components of the typical “psychology of cancer,” as it has been perceived in people in pre-cancerous and cancerous states, we should state that in most cases they concern subconscious emotions and states of mind, which however, usually become immediately recognized and confirmed by cancer patients when mentioned to them:

Shock: Research has recorded that about 6 to 18 months before cancer becomes diagnosed, the person consciously or sometimes subconsciously has experienced a severe shock or a number of shocks in an area of major importance for his/her life.

Grief and despair: Since then, the person has been living in profound grief, despair and distress, suffering the loss of an essential soul survival mechanism.

Hopelessness: The person believes that there is going to be no end to this suffering. 

Helplessness: The person feels left alone; no help can come from anywhere, as others are either unaware, unable or unwilling to help.

Resentment: Hidden feelings of bitterness, resentment and sense of having been unjustly treated by certain significant others are part of the emotional complexity of the situation.

Powerless anger: As a result of feeling a victim of injustice, there is suppressed silent anger and rage together with a sense of total powerlessness. The person feels defeated.

Guilt: Taking action to break free from the particular psychological bind seems impossible, either because of ethical obligations, moral dictates, love attachments or other obstacles. Simply getting past the stressful situation would make the person feel guilty for being “unfaithful,” “unloving,” “irresponsible,” “cruel,” etc. Many times, guilt and resentment go hand in hand, as the person partly considers the stressful life condition as a punishment for his/her faults and shortcomings in this matter.

Lack of expression of negative emotions: Either out of fear, guilt, confusion or simply despair, the person finds no outlet to express their wounded feelings. Instead, emotional toxicity is being accumulated within. The person silently “carries his/her cross.”

Sense of being “entrapped”: As a result of all the above, the person feels trapped in a horrific emotional prison, from which there is no way out.

Exhaustion: The prolonged heavy soul pressure finally results in tremendous exhaustion, both physical and emotional. Under the particular stress, the person can find no rest, no “inner sunshine,” and no “air” for the soul to breathe and to refresh. Life becomes a burden.

Depression: Because of the above negative emotional state, the person can find no joy, no sweetness in life, no reason why to genuinely wish to live.

Resignation: It seems as if nothing can be done. Although he or she may seem to still be trying, the person totally resigns inwardly, and submits to “fate.”

Unconscious wish to die: Despite any conscious desire to live, possible fear of death, concern about loved ones and wish to fulfill life goals, a person in a pre-cancerous or cancerous state deep within his/her soul would like to die.

Because of this unconscious desire to live no more, cancer has been described by some researchers as “a noble way to commit suicide.”

Sweetness, quiet acceptance of despair: Shortly before the onset of cancer and often also during the course of the disease, the person usually appears to be very quiet, sweetly accepting his/her life burden, not blaming anybody, not asking anything for him/herself. He or she may display an exceptional kindness, a “saintly” quality which is not of this world (people are often especially moved when remembering cancer patients). 

Choosing flower essences for cancer

The idea for this article is not to suggest an essence formula for cancer, but rather to initiate the thought that flower essences can offer great psychological support regarding the emotional issues statistically found as closely connected with the deterioration of the natural defense mechanisms which, under normal conditions, are able to fight cancer in the body. 

Flower essences have proven to be very important in cleansing and rebalancing the mental-emotional state, giving space to the person’s soul to bring him/her back to life again and unblocking the energy system to a point where it is able to nourish and cure the body.

After the underlying dangerous negative mental-emotional state has been transformed to a considerable degree, more flower essences can be applied to help in different areas of dealing with the problem. Such areas usually include: cleansing the body, bearing side effects of medical treatments, fear, and self-healing.

Defining the basic emotional conflict in cancer patients

One might think of making a flower essence formula based on this particular mental-emotional profile, and such a formula might prove to be of critical help in the process of dealing with the illness. However, it is always good for cancer patients—after initial relief provided by flower essences to determine and become consciously aware of their distressful difficulties—to work with the help of a trained health care professional. In this way, more specific and personalized information may become available, and lead to the choice of flower essences important for the healing process of the particular case.

Experience has shown that not all people are willing or capable of dealing consciously with their stressful issues. Fortunately, flower essences have proven able to be of critical help even when a cancer patient never works directly with the problems which led his/herself to such a distress.

However, gaining awareness over the situation and working out healthier strategies to deal with this particular type of stress will best protect the person from similar future health issues and will further their self-awareness and psycho-spiritual development as well.
I have never seen a cancer patient who was able to immediately answer the question, “Well, what was it that caused such a distress to you?” It is only after posing careful questions that they respond, opening their heart in great relief. But even then, they never think of relating their soul pain with their illness. Often, cancer patients have much difficulty talking about what has been deeply hurting them, while they may easily talk about other issues of theirs. In many cases, talking with people from the patients’ environments has often provided the essential information which uncovered the basic emotional conflict in them.

B.S., a now-healthy 38-year-old woman was found to have an aggressive type of breast cancer more than five years ago, after she had successfully completed her graduation exams to become a lawyer. She had been “happily married” and had three beautiful young children. Everything seemed idyllic in this person’s life at first glance. Everybody was shocked to hear about her cancer: “What bad luck…”

Tactful conversation revealed to me no relevant information from this person about any stress in her life at that time and it was only through a family friend that I knew the facts, which in my eyes formed the typical emotional “portrait” of cancer. She had been through a period of time when she had exhausted herself studying for her exams while being the mother of three children, one of which was a newborn. “ She practically got no sleep,” said the friend. She received no help from her mother when studying all night and taking care of the kids during the day. Her rich in-laws, who disliked her despite her efforts to please them, did not volunteer to support the couple who were going through a financially stressed phase. On top of all this, her husband had been threatening her that he would find a girlfriend if she continued to “always be so tired…”

She had stood all that without really complaining, always “brave and strong,” always “nice and caring.”

The shock from the illness, and the awareness, empowerment and relief gained through the flower essences, quickly resulted in a deep change in the woman’s attitude. “I take good care of myself now,” she told me some time later. “I take care to feel good deep within me, and to be satisfied with how I live my life. I don’t let anyone ‘squeeze’ my energy or hurt me. I love and adequately defend myself.”

Emotional distress caused by love relations seems to be one of the most common types of stress that we see in cancer cases. Often people decide to submit to situations that are deeply hurting them, situations where they are being emotionally exploited and subtly abused. They usually accept to remain in such situations, because they are emotionally/physically/financially/morally, etc. attached, and dependent on the particular person(s) or situation(s).

Often they will say that they hold on to certain relationships because they love their partners and would never get angry at him/her for letting them down. At other times, they may accept entirely painful situations for the sake of their children or other loved ones. People in these cases suppress their true feelings of grief and sorrow and deny the fact that they do feel abandoned and abused. Grief depletes their system from energy and tension builds in, the suppressed rage and resentment finding no way to become released.

Needless to say, the particular organs and parts of the body where the illness of cancer appears does not seem irrelevant to the type of stress the person has experienced – which can further facilitate our understanding of the life area that requires special attention and care.

Sometimes it is very difficult to perceive the particular emotional background in certain cancer cases, as what makes one distressed can be very personal and quite different from the way someone else would have reacted under similar conditions. We should avoid the temptation to set “rules” as to what might cause distress to someone, but rather focus on the way a particular human soul feels deep inside, regardless of the objective severity of circumstances.

I remember J. B., a friend’s father in his seventies, who suddenly was diagnosed with liver cancer, while everything in his life looked to be fine or at least without any visible negative changes. Quite the opposite, the man had recently gotten his first and very much-awaited grandchild, the only grandchild in the family after the many years that his only son had been married. Cancer appeared soon after the child was born, while the atmosphere of enthusiasm in the family was still high. The grandfather’s disease was seen as “truly bad luck.”

J. B. had spent most of his life between severe and slight depression. His wife had always been a strict, authoritarian woman, ruling and repressing him but at the same time treating him like a powerless child who needed to be taken care of. Although living in another town, their son always had an emotionally important role in their lives, opposing the mother while also caring for and empowering the father.

Since the man’s cancer appeared, I was closely attending the situation, providing essences and puzzled by having found no signs of relevant stress. Then one day, when the patient said that he was soon going to die, one of his cousins said to him: “No, you must live, we need you, James!” “You have another James now…!” he answered in a bitter voice. “I am no longer needed, I am only a burden now.” By “another James” he meant his grandson, who was named after the grandfather as is the custom in Greece. It was the tone of his unusual statement – afflicted, aggrieved, resentful, totally desperate, weary, quietly resigned – which alarmed me, suddenly providing an opening through which I could see what was happening in his psyche.

Though I could not tell in which way, it was now apparent that the birth of the grandson had brought changes in the family dynamics, which had been tremendously distressing to the old man. My impression was that he had sensed that his wife’s attention, and his son’s interest and care, had entirely moved away from him to the child, something that presented a severe blow for that particular person in old age. The old man took flower essences; he did very well at first, but did not finally overcome the conflict. His wife firmly refused to get some “drops” for herself as well. Perhaps the family system was not willing to have two “babies” to take care of.

Once while I was talking with a psychologist on this matter, I said: “We can’t know what can cause someone this type of distress. It could be anything he or she perceives as an unbearable pain from which there is no way out. For some, it might even be the fact that they’ve gotten old…”

“Well, that sounds true to me!” she answered. She said that her father had been a man who had built his own identity on being a physically strong and healthy person, who drew satisfaction from life mainly by working out things successfully in a physical manner. He had never been happy at home with her mother, but work always helped him feel good. When in his late seventies he realized that he was no longer strong and able to do things – nor was he ever going to be as he once was. In one of his rare moments of in-depth communication with his daughter visiting him, he told her in profound despair: “I never actually believed that I would get old, never! It has been such a shock: it’s all over; time won over me. I feel defeated.” A while later, she said he was diagnosed with cancer.

Retirement often presents a very stressful life change, especially in men, who traditionally depend a lot on their professional identity in order to feel efficient and energetic, to overcome problems and to find interest in life. Many times, work serves as an “oasis” for them, allowing them to stay away from disturbing emotional issues in the family. Soon after retirement, marital problems may become especially prominent and stressful, as he finds himself “at home with the wife all day for the rest of his life.”

A client of mine recently told me that her father was found to have a malignant right brain tumor, less than a year after he went on pension. “What bad luck, right when he had the chance to rest and to enjoy free time after so many years of hard work… to be visiting his grandchildren, to play with them…” “Was he happy after having stopped his work?” I asked. “He is sad and aggrieved at my mother-in-law,” said her husband, who was present in the session. “She is domineering and speaks to him in a harsh way. He never resents and never says a bad word about anyone. After selling his shop when he had to retire about a year ago, he found himself in my mother-in-law’s way. When he knew that he was ill, he said that it happened ‘because of sadness’ and said to my mother-in-law: ‘It is because of you.’”

“The truth is,” said his wife, “My mother has always been a very negative person, very unpleasant to be around, always poisoning my and my brother’s lives with her words and attitudes. She was never satisfied, it was impossible to please her in any way. Only when she went through phases of depression did she become humane. My father had always avoided conflict, not interacting much with her, spending the whole day in his shop. There he felt well, talked with clients and friends, and met a lot of people. He was popular, friendly and sociable. Of course when he retired, he lost all that. He was suddenly ‘locked in the house’ alone with my mother and had nothing to expect but to remain so for the rest of his life. My mother now threw all her negativity on him. It was hard for me to stand that atmosphere whenever I visited them. And I don’t think my father deserved this. But he is the type of personality who doesn’t react, who keeps everything inside. From now on, he will have to live as if in a pressure cooker…”

Searching beyond appearances

The fear, even the terror, that cancer patients often feel about their disease, and the desperate desire they express to get well and continue to live, should not prevent us from perceiving the resignation, the despair and the almost suicidal disposition that coexist in the background.

I always remember one of the first cancer cases with which I was asked to assist as a young psychiatrist many years ago. I had not become familiar with alternative therapies yet, so I only talked with the patients, trying to offer some consolation and psychological support. I had spent many hours talking with a very capable, dynamic, industrious woman in her fifties, who had been diagnosed with depression as a reaction to her bone cancer.

After years of a passionate debate in court concerning some family property to which she felt particularly attached, she had lost her property rights and soon after, she got cancer. She felt immense hostility from and towards her relatives, and great resentment. She described their attitude towards her and her mother as “really outrageous and sarcastic.” Although she did not understand why I wanted to know about those things, she eagerly spoke of her inner turmoil and told me many times that she was feeling extremely sad, angry and defeated, not so much because of the property loss per se, but because of the way it had been lost. The worst thing was that she could not avoid meeting those relatives many times a day as they had come to live permanently in her lost parental home, next to her apartment: her neighbors for life. Of course she did not relate any of those feelings to her cancer.

Meanwhile, she was experiencing extreme terror knowing that she had cancer: “Words cannot describe this torture. Only in my sleep do I relax a bit, but I literally sink back into hell when I wake up in the morning and remember. One should not wish even one’s worst enemy to go through what I am going through.” I haven’t met anybody in as much terror at having cancer as this woman. The striking thing about her was that, with just a little probing, she would reveal that she had no desire to live!

“I can hardly bear to go on living, feeling the way that I feel. My life is awful; my life is a burden. And yet, I am terrified at the idea of death. I don’t want to live and I don’t want to die. Living is an unbearable thing. When I try to think of my husband, of my kids, I can’t visualize them being happy in the future, looking forward to enjoying things in life… as if life has nothing worth offering, nothing worth living for.”

Contacting the soul level

Allowing patients to become aware of their inner distress and relating it to their illness provides tremendous relief, because subconsciously they already know what is causing them harm, and they want to uncover and release it. I am always impressed how, speaking on behalf of a cancer patient, in an effort to guess and describe their soul difficulties, it makes sense to them in a very profound way.

Once while on holidays in Crete, I was talking with a vacationing German writer who told me that she was suffering from lung cancer. I mentioned flower essences and at some point, she asked me what she could do in order to choose some. I answered that she might choose in accordance with her deeper feelings. 

As is usually the case, cancer patients do not relate their cancer problem with their authentic, overall emotional state but approach the issue as to how they feel about the illness.

I remember that she started saying things such as: “I feel courageous now,” “I am not entirely free from fear but am also quite optimistic,” etc., supposing that a positive state of mind was what would be expected of her. I tried to explain what I meant, but again she was not able to answer: she just kept smiling, like a truly polite and good mannered person.

“Listen,” I said, “I will try to describe a particular emotional situation and you please try to tell whether this has anything to do with the way you have been feeling for some time before the problem was diagnosed.” As I talked, I could see the mask with no expression being removed from her face, as she was apparently feeling more and more comfortable and relieved. Very soon, she burst into tears, uncovering a large accumulation of inner pain. She had the look in her eye of a person who finally feels understood. Soon her husband was back in the room and asked her how our talk went. She turned to him and said in a low but firm voice: “She told me everything about me.” “Which method did she use?” he asked. “Well…’” she whispered thoughtfully, “I think she is a psychic!”

I was amused with this statement and explained to her that I did not have psychic abilities but what I had said were only psychodynamic research findings. I never asked about her life events or had the slightest idea about that woman’s life, nor can I make any hypothesis as to what the basic conflict might have been for her. However, I was glad to have had this conversation; it served as a vivid confirmation of how these findings about the emotional background of cancer ring true, deep within the soul of the person concerned. 

“Spontaneous cures”

Personally, I believe that there can be no cure of cancer if the inner state, the soul, is not taken into account and cared for.

Cases that seem to have responded with total recovery to a particular treatment that does not directly address the soul level, if watched closely, always seem to reveal a simultaneous change of attitude that enables the patient to permanently benefit from the treatment and not become ill from cancer again later. Sometimes the family, the partner or other loved one who happens to be directly associated with the extreme stress that the ill person experiences, becomes alarmed by the onset of the illness and by showing real care, unknowingly helps the patient overcome his or her distress and recover his or her unconscious will to live. 

G. P., a woman in her early thirties who had always been somewhat symbiotically attached to her husband, experienced a radical change in her life when he announced to her that he had decided they should have an “open marriage.” Soon after that, she was found to have breast cancer with a very poor prognosis. The illness was a shock to the husband, who then completely concentrated on her recovery, forgetting all about bringing more sexual partners into the marriage. They became much closer, practiced yoga together, traveled together, and spent a lot of time dealing with homeopathy and nutrition. She never had another cancer episode in the more than ten years which have passed since then.

At other times, it is the patient him/herself that becomes alarmed and hastily changes his/her unconscious choices, instinctively adopting alternative ways of dealing with their problems and thus breaking through their distress. Dr. Edward Bach himself,

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