The Character of Cancer; the Controversial Role of Personality in the Development of Cancer Is Addressed in Several Extended Studies

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, February 21, 1987 | Go to article overview

The Character of Cancer; the Controversial Role of Personality in the Development of Cancer Is Addressed in Several Extended Studies


Bower, Bruce, Science News


The Character of Cancer

In 1948, a group of medical students atJohns Hopkins University in Baltimore bent over their desks and gazed at the amorphouse image of a Rorschach inkblot, one of 10 such blots presented to them by an experimenter. Their written descriptions of what they saw included the following:

a young couple kissing

two people shaking hands

two dancers

two dogs snarling at each other

two cannibals boiling Macbeth in akettle.

Nearly 35 years later, psychologistPirkko L. Graves and her colleagues rated these responses, and those of other medical students tested through 1964, on an 11-point scale for varying degrees of harmonious, emotionally "positive' interactions and antagonistic, emotionally "negative' interactions. Not unexpectedly, the former students whose pattern of scores indicated a distant, withdrawn approach to relationships or a poorly balanced mix of extreme emotions in relationships were more likely to have developed a severe mental disorder by 1984.

But surprisingly, report the investigatorsin the Nov./Dec. 1986 PSYCHOSOMATIC MEDICINE, the same pattern of scores was linked to the later appearance of another set of disorders--cancers, particularly those of the blood cells and the digestive and lymphatic systems. These consisted of cancers of the stomach, pancreas, rectum, large intestine and lymph nodes, Hodgkin's disease, leukemia and multiple myeloma.

Lung and skin cancer were unrelated toinkblot-based interaction scores, as were benign tumors, coronary heart disease, duodenal ulcers and hypertension. Other cancers, including those of the bladder, kidney, prostate, brain and thyroid, had a slight but statistically insignificant relationship to the Rorschach measure.

"The findings so far are suggestive,'says Graves, "but they highlight an important psychological variable that should be further explored in relation to cancer.'

Theories connecting personalityand emotions to malignancy date back at least to the second century Greek physician Galen, who attributed cancer to a melancholy disposition. Since then they have stirred up considerable controversy (SN: 1/21/78, p.44). Studies in which large samples of people are psychologically tested early in life and followed for decades to chart the appearance of various types of cancer (or, for that matter, any other physical disease) are, however, rare.

One such project, in which researchersfollowed nearly 7,000 residents of Alameda County, Calif., for 17 years, showed that two types of social isolation--having few close friends and feeling alone even when friends are present--played an important role in elevating the risk of dying from cancer, but only among women (SN: 3/15/86, p.166). The greatest death risks were for breast and lymph cancer.

Graves and her co-workers at JohnsHopkins University are involved in a similar endeavor, known as the Precursors Study. A battery of psychological and physical tests was given to 1,337 Hopkins medical students in classes graduating between 1948 and 1964. Health records of the subjects, now in their 50s and 60s, have been collected annually. The Rorschach data are based on the 1,032 white males in the sample.

The researchers assume that a personprojects his or her perceptions and emotional expectations of others into Rorschach responses involving two or more figures. Written descriptions satisfying this criterion were culled from 40,000 Rorschach responses obtained over the course of the study. Three investigators, including Graves, independently scored "interation' responses (with substantial agreement among raters) on an 11-point scale ranging from 5 to -5. For example, "a young couple kissing' was assigned 5, "two dancers' was assigned 0 (for undefined or neutral emotional tone and involvement) and "two dogs snarling at each other' was assigned -3. Poor Macbeth and his cannibalistic tormentors were allotted a -5. …

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