The Emotional Impact of Shame and Cancer | NFCR Blog


Shame & Cancer

woman in the dark feeling shameUpon diagnosis, many cancer patients naturally evaluate how their lifestyles could have contributed to their fate. They may believe their cancer was self-inflicted and experience a deep sense of shame, saying to themselves phrases such as:

“Why couldn’t I stop smoking? What’s wrong with me?”

“I should have eaten healthier. Why couldn’t I pull it together?”

This sense of shame can dramatically affect the cancer patient psychologically, but it can also ignite a profound physiological impact. In the lab, researchers have been able to recreate feelings of shame to test this cascade of physiological and psychological after-effects. 

Despite our societal belief that shame is a strong motivator for improved behavior and habits, researchers have discovered that the opposite is true. Shame has been linked with withdrawal, inactivity, and an increased intake of sugars and fats. Therefore, it is possible that feelings of shame regarding a cancer diagnosis could make it more difficult for patients to adhere to positive lifestyle changes as a component of treatment.

More importantly, research indicates that shame is a major trigger of HPA axis (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis)—our bodies central stress response system, igniting a physiological stress response resulting in a cascade of biochemical changes. These biochemical changes have been linked to increased inflammation and decreased immunity. More specifically, shame and negative emotions have both been linked to higher levels of a proinflammatory cytokine called interleukin-6 (IL-6). Since IL-6 is highly correlated with cancer progression, it is probable that feelings of shame can physiologically contribute to advancement of the disease.

Luckily, research in the last decade spearheaded by the University of Texas’s Dr. Kristin Neff on self-compassion has demonstrated a promising solution. Her research has identified self-compassion as the antithesis of shame both psychologically and physiologically. By implementing the three main components of self-compassion, including self-kindness, normalizing an experience, and improving mindfulness, studies demonstrate an increase in intrinsic motivation to improve self-care. 

Physiologically, research on self-compassion has also been shown to buffer the adverse biochemical changes that occurs as a result of HPA activation. But more surprisingly, self-compassion is correlated with lower levels of IL-6.

By understanding the link between shame, negative emotions, and physiological changes in the body, we can not only develop respected cancer treatments that prioritize self-compassion and positive mental health, but we can also begin to view self-compassion as an important component of cancer prevention.