Survivor Mentality Benefits People with Mesothelioma

Melanie Ball with her father

My father, Richard Lloyd Barker, fought mesothelioma with the spirit of a warrior. He did everything with his whole heart, and fighting cancer was an endeavor he approached head-on.

That is just the kind of guy he was.

He was diagnosed in the fall of 1992, and his prognosis was grim. Doctors told him he could live for three months with no medical intervention and six months with intensive chemotherapy.

Surgery wasn’t an option for him. During the early ‘90s, medical procedures for mesothelioma treatment weren’t as effective as they are now. Because his cancer had progressed to stage IV, doctors didn’t entertain the idea of surgery.

So with his injured but still intact warrior’s spirit, my father underwent months of relentless chemotherapy. Doctors inserted a port to ease the administration of his treatments, and for our family, the fight for my father’s life began.

Survival Mentality

My father fought mesothelioma valiantly for 13 months.

On Nov. 4, 1993, Dad succumbed to the illness. His fighting spirit is what I most vividly remember. His ambition was visible in all aspects of his life. He had the characteristics of a good leader.

My dad thought more of others than he thought of himself. He was a problem solver, and he had good relationships with his family, friends and co-workers. My dad was a patient man (unless he was working on a car, then he was a bull ready to charge).

He worked for more than 20 years at a paper mill where he supervised more than 50 men — including his own brother. I can honestly say he cared deeply for each of those paper mill workers.

My father didn’t just manage things at work; he also managed our finances and the interworking elements of our family.

His fighting spirit and personality traits likely played a role in keeping him alive for so long. He lived a year longer than doctors thought possible. Considering the mediocre medical technology available at the time and his prognosis, the length of his survival speaks volumes to me.

While researching hero-type personality traits for an undergraduate class, I thought deeply about what drove my father’s desire to beat mesothelioma.

I wonder what influenced his survival. Was it his courage, responsibility, tenacity, improvisation and ambition? If I was fighting for my life, these are qualities I would draw from.

Evidence of Survival Traits

Many psychological researchers, including Dr. Sarah Erickson from the University of New Mexico and Dr. Hans Steiner from Stanford University, believe personality factors can influence a person’s chances of survival when fighting off illness.

Some major psychological factors that can contribute to physical health are resilience and a person’s psychological and social function.

For example, if a person can bounce back from troubling situations, they likely draw survivalist qualities beneficial in fighting cancer. Additionally, a person who has good communication skills and relationships may fare better with certain health conditions.

Dr. Elaine Kinsella, lecturer and post-doctoral researcher for Limerick University in Ireland, claims that people with higher levels of conscientiousness, agreeability, openness, and extraversion experience the physical symptoms of stress and illness differently than people with lower levels of those traits.

People with higher levels of those personality traits are more likely to have developed adequate coping skills and will approach a serious illness with a positive outlook, regardless of medical prognosis.

If certain personality traits and behavior tendencies can influence the outcome of health problems in a positive way, we may begin to wonder if there are personality traits that can influence illnesses in a negative way.

Exploring the Links Between Illness and Personality

Researchers from the department of medical psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and Dr. Johan Denollet, who teaches social and behavioral sciences at the school, think there may be a link between personality and deterioration of health.

Certain personality traits are correlated with poor health status. In fact, Denollet categorized these traits and identified them collectively as a Type D personality, in which the D stands for distressed.

Some traits common to Type D personalities include:

  • Negative outlook
  • Frequently worrying and irritability
  • Frequently feeling distressed
  • Low self-esteem
  • Pessimism
  • Often experiencing anger
  • Frequently experiencing anxiety and depression

People with Type D personality usually struggle in relationships. Because they have trouble expressing their feelings in social situations, they tend to keep their emotions private.

The traits involved with Type D personality may have negative health consequences, too.

Type D Personality, Heart Health and Cancer

Tilburg researchers also found a link between Type D personality and heart problems.

People with Type D personality are more likely to experience conditions such as hypertension and cardiac arrest. Researchers from the nursing department at the National Taiwan University in Taipei say the inability of Type D personalities to cope in stressful situations and difficulty expressing emotions are factors that influence the development of cardiac conditions.

Also, people with Type D personality are twice as likely to report problems with their health, in comparison to people with other personality types, according to the Tilburg studies.

More recent studies, like those conducted in Taipei, show a correlation between Type D personality and colorectal cancer.

Currently, there are no studies linking mesothelioma and Type D personality.

What if You Have a Type D Personality?

First, all hope is not lost.

Many people who have Type D personality tend to have a negative outlook toward all aspects of life, and having a serious disease such as mesothelioma would be no different.

A person with a negative approach to treatment wouldn’t fare as well as someone more ambitious and positive about their cancer treatment.

Denollet suggests doctors spend more time with patients who have a Type D personality. If doctors are aware of the personality type indication, they can make a conscious effort to combat negative feelings of hopelessness and help their patients overcome their feelings of anxiety and depression.

A doctor may also suggest that you see a mental health professional. A clinician can help change a person’s perspective, especially regarding a tough diagnosis.

Always keep in mind that personality doesn’t define our health — just our perception of it.

  1. Boyle, G. J., Matthews, G., & Saklofske, D. H. (Eds.). (2008). The SAGE handbook of personality theory and assessment: Volume 1 — Personality theories and models. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. doi: http://dx.doi.org.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/10.4135/9781849200462
  2. Erickson, S., & Steiner, H. (2001, March). Trauma and personality correlates in long term pediatric cancer survivors. Child Psychiatry and Human Development, 31(3), -195-213. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/docview/821825721?pq-origsite=summon&accountid=458
  3. Kinsella, E. L., Ritchie, T. D., & Igou, E. R. (2015). Zeroing in on heroes: A prototype analysis of hero features. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(1), 114-127. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/docview/1647028874?pq-origsite=summon&accountid=166133
  4. Marius, C. C., & Mairean, C. (2015). The relation between personality traits, social support and traumatic stress. Revista De Cercetare Si Interventie Sociala, 48, 17-31. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1665131611?accountid=458
  5. Mois, R., Holterhues, C., & Nijsten, T., & Van de Poll-Franse, L. Personality is associated with health status and impact of cancer among melanoma survivors. European Journal of Cancer, 46(3), 573-580. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/science/article/pii/S0959804909007023
  6. Park, A. (2010, September). Are You a Type D Personality? Your Heart May Be at Risk. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2010/09/14/a-new-risk-factor-for-heart-disease-type-d-personality/
  7. Shun, Shiow-Ching,R.N., PhD., Hsiao, Fei-Hsiu,R.N., PhD., Lai, Yeur-Hur,R.N., PhD., Liang, J., M.D., Yeh, Kun-Huei,M.D., PhD., & Huang, J., M.D. (2011). Personality trait and quality of life in colorectal cancer survivors. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21531672

Melanie is currently pursuing a Master's degree at the University of the Cumberlands. She has a Bachelor of Science in psychology from the University of Phoenix. Her father was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1992. She is dedicated to writing about her unique experience with the rare disease.

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