Parts working – can our parts cause cancer?

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Parts working – can our parts cause cancer?

In this article, we will look at the growing body of evidence that many of our chronic physical ailments may well be caused by psychological dysfunction. For those of us who speak of our many parts, the implication is that integrating our parts does not just heal our psychological problems and enable self-actualisation. But it may also help prevent and cure some of the most serious chronic diseases that we see today.

“I suggest some cancers can be the ultimate payback for refusing to accept some part of yourself. I think different parts have control over different parts of the body, that was part of their original “wholesome” function. But we have traumas, and over time, if we fail to heal the resulting dissociation, these can turn into monsters, and we become  too scared to even think about them. Over time, those neglected parts get more and more frustrated and start sabotaging not just our mind, but also our body.” Self Transcendence Research (2023).

There is a growing body of evidence that supports the proposal that mental health issues can cause physical illness, including cancer and diabetes. According to the Mental Health Foundation, “people with a mental health problem are more likely to have a preventable physical health condition such as heart disease” (n.d., para. 1). This can be due to genetic factors, unhealthy behaviours, stress, and sleep disruption that are associated with mental health problems (Verywell Mind, 2023). For example, depression can lead to poor appetite, weight loss or gain, and increased inflammation, which can increase the risk of developing diabetes (Royal College of Psychiatrists, n.d.). Similarly, anxiety can trigger the release of stress hormones that can damage the immune system and make it harder to fight off infections and cancer cells (Springer, 2022).

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Some of the psychological theories that support the notion of a link between mental health and physical illness are:

The biopsychosocial model: This theory proposes that biological, psychological, and social factors interact to influence health and illness. For instance, a person’s genetic makeup, personality traits, coping skills, and social support can affect how they respond to a physical illness or a mental health problem (, n.d.).

The biopsychosocial model suggests that mental illness can cause chronic physical illness by affecting the interactions between biological, psychological and social factors. According to Engel and Romano (1977), who developed this model, “suffering, disease, or illness involve a host of factors from biological (tissues, structures, molecules) to environmental (social, psychological)” (as cited in Verywell Mind, 2023).

For example, chronic stress can impair the immune system, increase inflammation and damage the brain, leading to various health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression (SpringerLink, 2019). Conversely, physical health conditions can also worsen mental health by causing pain, disability and emotional distress.

As one study noted, “chronically ill patients often experience psychosocial problems in everyday life” (BMC Primary care, 2012). Therefore, the biopsychosocial model implies that health and disease are not merely determined by biological factors, but by the complex interplay of psychological and social influences as well.

The stress-diathesis model: This theory suggests that some people have a genetic or biological vulnerability to certain illnesses that can be triggered or worsened by environmental stressors. For example, a person with a family history of diabetes may develop the condition if they experience chronic stress or trauma that affects their blood sugar levels (Verywell Mind, 2023).

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The stress-diathesis model suggests that mental illness can cause chronic physical illness by interacting with a person’s genetic or biological vulnerability and exposure to stressful life events.

According to this model, “stressors believed to create the onset of mental illness included physical illness, pregnancy, and substance abuse” (Choosing Therapy, 2023). For example, a person with a family history of depression may develop cardiovascular disease after experiencing a traumatic event, such as a car accident or a divorce.

The stress-diathesis model implies that both prevention and treatment of mental and physical disorders should address both the underlying vulnerability and the environmental stressors that trigger or exacerbate them (Verywell Mind, 2023).

The psychoneuroimmunology theory: This theory examines how the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system communicate and influence each other. The psychoneuroimmunology theory suggests that mental illness can cause chronic physical illness by affecting the interactions between the brain and the immune system.

Psychoneuroimmunology is “the examination of the interactions among psychological, behavioural, and social factors with immunological and neuroendocrine outcomes”. (Lumen Learning, n.d., para).

The theory posits that psychological factors such as emotions, thoughts, and beliefs can affect the functioning of these systems and alter the body’s ability to resist or recover from diseases. For example, positive emotions such as happiness and optimism can enhance the immune system and protect against infections and cancer (, n.d.).

According to this theory, psychological stress can impair the immune system’s functioning and make people more vulnerable to infections, inflammation, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.

For example, a meta-analysis of 293 studies found that stress was associated with lower levels of natural killer cells, which are important for fighting viral infections and tumours (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004).

Another example is that people with depression have higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are molecules that trigger inflammation and can contribute to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurodegeneration (Slavich & Irwin, 2014).

Therefore, psychoneuroimmunology provides a framework for understanding how mental illness can influence physical health through biological pathways.

These three theories illustrate how mental health issues can have a significant impact on physical health and vice versa. Therefore, it is important to address both aspects of health in an integrated and holistic way.

The influence of our parts

One of the psychological approaches that has been applied to understand and treat cancer and other physical symptoms is the parts working model, which assumes that the human psyche consists of multiple parts or subpersonalities that have different roles, needs, and emotions (Schwartz, 1995).

According to this model, some parts may be negatively attuned to the self or others, resulting in psychological distress and physical symptoms. For example, a part that is critical, fearful, or ashamed may cause chronic stress, inflammation, or immune suppression, which may increase the risk of developing cancer or worsen its prognosis (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019).

Conversely, some parts may be positively attuned to the self or others, promoting psychological well-being and physical health. For example, a part that is compassionate, curious, or confident may enhance coping, resilience, or social support, which may reduce the impact of cancer or improve its outcome (Schwartz & Sweezy, 2019).

Therefore, the parts working model suggests that by identifying and transforming the negatively attuned parts and by accessing and strengthening the positively attuned parts, cancer patients and others with physical conditions may experience less psychological and physical suffering and more healing and recovery.

Increasing support that parts can get physical

Some parts may be negatively attuned to our physical well-being, and may cause or exacerbate physical symptoms as a way of expressing their distress or protecting us from emotional pain (Healthline, 2020). For example, a part that holds trauma may create chronic tension or inflammation in the body, or a part that fears rejection may induce nausea or headaches to avoid social situations.

As Lissa Rankin MD explained in her recent article – Internal Family Systems (IFS) Is A Game-Changer For Medicine, the realisation that our parts may hold the answer to preventing and potentially curing cancer:

“But firefighters do not only show up as psychiatric illnesses. They can also show up as physical illnesses—or other parts can use some physical vulnerability in your system to take you out. Think Migraine part, Back pain part, Chronic Fatigue part, Asthma part, or even Cancer part.” Lissa Rankin (n.a.)

Rankin goes on to explain this adverse behaviour of some of our parts, whilst difficult to understand, is often the result of parts trying to protect us from a perceived bigger threat:

“Why would parts that think they’re protecting you pull such potentially harmful stunts? Why would they use anorexia or an addiction or cutting or dissociation or even cancer to try to protect you? Because they know not what they do.” Lissa Rankin (n.a.)

Dick Schwartz, creator of Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS), agrees that negatively attuned parts can produce physical symptoms, including cancer, by creating chronic stress and inflammation in the body (Schwartz, 2020). According to IFS, these parts are often exiled or rejected by other parts that try to protect the self from pain or trauma. By helping the self to access and heal these parts, IFS may reduce physical symptoms and enhance wellbeing (Schwartz, 2020).

Indeed, a recent study by Nancy (2013) revealed positive results for the reduction of pain in rheumatoid arthritis sufferers:

“An IFS intervention tailored to work with patients with rheumatoid arthritis appears feasible and acceptable and may complement medical management of the disease. The sustained improvement in depressive symptoms, self-compassion, and reduction in self-reported joint pain suggests that the program participants may have incorporated some of the program’s strategies into their daily lives.” Nancy, A. Shadick et al. (2013).

Evidence from the world of somatic therapy

somatic therapy is a form of therapy that looks at the connection of mind and body and uses both psychotherapy and physical therapies for holistic healing (Psychology Today, n.d.).

According to somatic therapy, physical illness can be caused by mental health conditions, especially trauma, stress, anxiety, and depression. This is because these conditions can affect the nervous system and create chronic tension, pain, inflammation, and disease in the body (Sandstone care, 2023).

somatic therapy aims to help people release the trauma and stress from their body by using techniques such as touch, movement, breathing, mindfulness, and emotional expression (Verywell Health, 2022).

One of the pioneers of somatic therapy is Peter Levine, who developed the somatic experiencing method based on his observation of how animals cope with life-threatening situations.

He proposed that trauma is not caused by the event itself, but by the inability of the body to complete its natural response to the threat and return to a state of balance (Levine, 2010). He also suggested that trauma can be healed by activating the body’s innate capacity to self-regulate and restore equilibrium (Levine & Kline, 2007).

Another influential figure in somatic therapy is Bessel van der Kolk, who has researched the effects of trauma on the brain and body for decades. He has shown that trauma can alter the structure and function of the brain, impairing memory, cognition, emotion regulation, and interpersonal relationships (van der Kolk, 2014).

van der Kolk has also demonstrated that trauma can increase the risk of developing chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders (van der Kolk et al., 2007). He has advocated for the use of somatic therapies such as EMDR, yoga, neurofeedback, and sensory integration to help trauma survivors heal their mind and body (van der Kolk et al., 2016).

Some examples of how somatic therapy has helped people with physical illness caused by mental health conditions are:

  • A woman who was sexually abused as a child developed breast cancer as an adult. She underwent somatic experiencing therapy and was able to process her traumatic memories and release the emotions that were trapped in her body. She also learned to reconnect with her body and feel more empowered and confident. Her cancer went into remission after six months of therapy (Levine & Kline, 2007).
  • A man who suffered from chronic pain and fatigue due to fibromyalgia found relief through somatic therapy. He discovered that his pain was linked to his childhood trauma of being neglected and abandoned by his parents. He learned to regulate his nervous system and calm his stress response through breathing exercises and mindfulness. Furthermore, he also expressed his anger and grief through movement and sound. His pain decreased significantly, and his energy increased after three months of therapy (Heller & LaPierre, 2012).
  • A woman who had diabetes and hypertension due to her anxiety and depression improved her health through somatic therapy. She realized that her anxiety and depression were related to her abusive relationship with her husband. She learned to set boundaries and assert her needs through role-playing and body language. Furthermore, she also practised self-care and relaxation techniques such as massage and meditation. Her blood sugar and blood pressure normalized after four months of therapy (Rothschild, 2000).

Whilst there is still far too little evidence for any firm conclusion to be made regarding the ability of our parts to cause physical illnesses, there is a strong body of anecdotal evidence that suggests they do indeed have the ability to give us long term physical illness if they are left dissociated from the unified self.

This indicates that all of us need to be concerned about our mental health. Even if we consider ourselves to be reasonably healthy, it is suggested in parts working circles that a large majority of us have some dissociations. And that these, if left unhealed, may well resort to tampering with our physical functions, resulting in potentially chronic disease.


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