Why Do Nice People Get Cancer? How People Pleasing Can Lead to Your Body Saying No

Editor’s Note: The development of cancer and autoimmune diseases is a complex process, involving genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. It’s best to rely on evidence-based research and medical science when discussing these conditions. While stress, lifestyle, and genetics can influence disease risk, people-pleasing and self-denial might not be direct causes. Reader discretion is advised.

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Still from ‘Quand C’est’ by Stromae (2015)

When people talk about someone with cancer, there seems to be a common refrain— “Oh! He was always so nice,” or “She was so friendly and never said no.”

So, are people always nice? Or do they suddenly become nice after getting cancer, or do we call people with cancer nice out of pity? Well, there’s also a third possibility, as some mental health experts stipulate that people-pleasing and self-denial can lead to autoimmune diseases and even cancer.

So, why does being nice lead to cancer? And is it bad to be nice and kind to others? No, but let us make a distinction here between being nice and kind. Kindness is a state of empathy that allows us to feel for others and take action to reduce their sorrow or pain. 

Being nice, on the other hand, refers to the tendency to always worry more about others’ reactions and pleasing them to the point of self-effacement or denial. Have you ever noticed that either you or someone around you doesn’t have the tendency to say no? These people are often shy, meek and mild-mannered and always sensitive to the needs of others, to the point of ignoring their own pain and discomfort. 

So, where do all those suppressed desires and emotions go? Do they just disappear, or do they manifest in impulsive streaks, or does the effort of keeping them suppressed slowly poison one from within? 

Denying your true self and trauma to cater to the demands of others, whether it’s your manager, parents, or partner, can lead to high levels of stress or anxiety, which, in turn, leads to high cortisol production in the body. Wait, it doesn’t end here, as high levels of cortisol over a long period of time can cause severe inflammation. 

A long period in this situation is not desirable as this inflammation starts damaging our organs, slowly killing the person from within. Do you notice how high periods of stress often occur along with severe stomach pains and digestive issues? Well, it all comes back to the problem of trying to be nice to everyone. A people pleaser becomes so used to saying yes that it almost becomes a default mode or setting. It doesn’t matter what the other person is asking of you; you always say yes. 

Why is the inability to say no dangerous? It’s because it represents a failure to establish healthy boundaries with the world, this means you are operating out of a sense of fear and do not have a positive association with most things or people in the world. 

In his groundbreaking book, When the Body Says No, Dr Gabor Mate, also known as the trauma doctor, has highlighted several clinical anecdotes and medical evidence to support his conclusion that several illnesses, including cancer, can arise from not setting healthy boundaries. He states that “when we have been prevented from learning how to say no, our bodies may end up saying it for us”. 

The basic gist is—-when we force ourselves to do something against our natural inclination to please others, our body rebels against us by compromising our ability to function properly. 

In the initial chapter of When the Body Says No, Dr Gabor talks about a patient who was dear to him. In his words, “Mary was a Native woman in her early forties, slight of stature, gentle and deferential in manner. She had been my patient for eight years, along with her husband and three children. There was a shyness in her smile, a touch of self-deprecation.”

Mary, unfortunately, developed gangrene due to a simple puncture wound from a needle, this was because she had developed Raynaud’s phenomenon, a condition in which the small arteries supplying the fingers are narrowed, depriving the tissues of oxygen. It commonly occurs in smokers. While Mary quit smoking, she was soon diagnosed with scleroderma, an autoimmune disease. According to Dr Gabor, “In scleroderma (from the Greek word meaning “hardened skin”), the immune system’s suicidal assault results in a stiffening of the skin, esophagus, heart, and tissues in the lungs and elsewhere.”

He goes on to call this situation a civil war and says that while every doctor, including him, treated the physical symptoms, no one bothered to see what was going on in Mary’s mind until he asked her to unburden herself one day. 

Recollecting it later, he says, “Beneath her meek and diffident manner was a vast store of repressed emotion,” and “Mary had been abused as a child, abandoned and shuttled from one foster home to another.”

He further postulates, “Mary described herself as being incapable of saying no, compulsively taking responsibility for the needs of others. Her major concern continued to be her husband and her nearly-adult children, even as her illness became more grave. Was the scleroderma her body’s way of finally rejecting this all-encompassing dutifulness?”

He continues, “Perhaps her body was doing what her mind could not: throwing off the relentless expectation that had been first imposed on the child and now was self-imposed in the adult—placing others above herself”

Dr Gabor’s book is full of many such anecdotes that highlight the correlation between the inability to say no and debilitating diseases. So, leading a life to please others can kill you, quite literally. 

He even wrote in a column for The Globe and Mail in 1993. “When we have been prevented from learning how to say no … our bodies may end up saying it for us.”

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have opened a proverbial can of worms, as it forced us to look at our lives, realizing that many of us were doing things merely out of the societal pressure to please others. This has led many to change their lives entirely and start living to please no one but themselves. 

If you are someone who has set the course of your life as per other people’s expectations of you, then don’t worry, as it’s not too late to set the course straight. The journey to self-discovery and affirmation is not an easy one. 

You have to learn how to undo a lifetime of beliefs and conditioning to find your true self. One can describe this as almost finding a needle in a haystack. While it may require a lot of effort, in the end, if you are able to live a happier and healthier life the way you have always dreamed of, then it’s worth all the effort and the heartbreak. So, do yourself a favour and learn to say ‘No’ to things every now and then. And remember, it’s never too late to get started. 


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Trishanka Parihar

A veritable Blahcksheep of epic proportions, Trishanka has always taken the road less travelled. Whether it has made a difference for better or worse, remains to be seen. She is inspired by the hidden traditions and patterns of everyday, mundane life and seeks to immortalize them in her stories. The literal train of thought may be hard to follow, but it reveals simple truths about our lives.

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