War Lowers Cancer Rates?

Solomon (1990) made the surprising finding that, historically, cancer rates have been much higher among soldiers in peacetime than during wartime. He discovered that being challenged and stressed can actually be good for one’s health, and that an easier life without challenge is deleterious to it. During the stress and chaos of wartime, there is always plenty to achieve; fighting to save the world or to defend one’s country can be profoundly life altering. Soldiers in wartime live with a great sense of meaning and purpose. During peacetime, soldiers spend less time doing the various things they find important—mostly they just take orders and don’t get to see the results of their actions.

The terms meaning and purpose often appear together, and I would frame their relationship this way: when we act with purpose, we take actions that are important enough to lend meaning to our lives. Meaningful actions are always in accord with our personal life values, whether we value accomplishment, wellbeing, comfort and safety, healthy relationships, artistic expression, or any other quality of life. Living purposefully, engaged in an active search for meaning, is a highly beneficial mastery and wellbeing practice that can have a profound positive impact on physical and emotional health. It is particularly effective in alleviating depression.

Finding Meaning in Illness

Throughout history, when people have fallen ill, they have searched for meaning in their illness. For many, this was because the possibility of being a victim of random bad luck was simply unacceptable. Patients often attributed supernatural causes to their disease and interpreted it as just punishment for unacceptable behavior, or even impure thoughts. Sometimes when a family member got sick, it brought the family together, and this was interpreted as divine intervention. It is still very common to search for some meaning in disease, and it doesn’t have to be in the realm of the supernatural. For many people, illness serves to teach them how to have greater appreciation for all the good things in their lives that they previously took for granted.

Sometimes the meaning we ascribe to an illness catalyzes physical, psychological, and emotional healing. When we view an illness as a chance to examine our lives and take action in line with our authentic life values, it serves as an opportunity rather than as some terrible thing that has victimized us. Imbuing the illness with meaning is self-empowering, enabling us to rearrange our lives to better conform to our life values. In doing so, we not only catalyze all our natural physiological healing mechanisms; we develop that all-important sense of being in control of our lives.

No one can predict the degree to which a debilitating disease will prevent someone else from living a meaningful life. Theoretical physicist and ALS patient Stephen Hawking has found a way to live with meaning and purpose despite unimaginably extreme quadriplegia. Perhaps this is why he is still alive after fifty years of living with a disease that normally kills in a few short years.

Solomon, George. Emotions, Stress and Immunity, in R. Ornstein and C. Swencionis (Eds.), The Healing Brain: A Scientific Reader. (pp. 174-181). (1990). New York: The Guilford Press.

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