The Stigma of Skin Cancer: Did You Ask for This?

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

There is a stigma attached to all cancers, but for a few cancers, the stigma is much worse. Both skin cancer and lung cancer carry the stigma of blame. For lung cancer, the most obvious question is: "Did you smoke?" And, if the answer is "yes" then you are often treated as if you deserve the cancer. Skin cancer is similar. We know that exposure to the sun's UV rays greatly increases your chances of developing skin cancer. Therefore, if you sunbathed or didn't use proper protection, some people see your cancer as something you asked for by not being more diligent.

Some people with skin cancer waste time and energy blaming themselves. Karen, now in her late fifties, spent her high school years sunbathing. Back then it was the "thing" to slather baby oil on your body and lay out in the sun, welcoming the UV rays. It was acceptable to spend summer afternoons with your friends, laying out in the sun, frequently comparing tan lines. Karen remembers that no one ever talked about skin cancer back then and no one questioned her sun bathing. It was just what you did. Last year Karen was diagnosed with skin cancer. She spends time regretting all the years she didn't worry about sunscreen or protecting herself from the sun. When she shares her diagnosis with friends, relatives or coworkers, the question, "Did you spend a lot of time in the sun?" invariably comes up. She has heard it so often that now she is ashamed to admit she has skin cancer because she knows she did this to herself.

This stigma is often painful and emotionally damaging to the person with skin cancer. It undermines a person's ability to fight the disease. It wastes valuable energy and in a study related to lung cancer, self-blame was found to contribute to depression, which in turn, can lead to not following treatment plans and the inability to cope with your illness. [Westmaas, 2013, American Cancer Society]

Blaming the patient for cancer isn't new. In the 1970s, Lydia Temoshok, PhD, suggested that not expressing your feelings could contribute to developing melanoma. According to her research, repressing your emotions depressed your immune system and therefore melanoma, and other cancers, could develop. She called this a Type C personality - someone who appeases others and denies their true feelings to conform to social standards.[1] Larry Lachman, a psychologist and cancer survivor calls this idea "ludicrous," because many assertive people die from cancer and many who are not assertive beat their cancer.

Another popular belief was that "positive thinking" can cure cancer. While it is important for cancer patients to have a positive attitude, this belief implies that those who do not cure their cancer are to blame for not thinking positively. Or, that you actually caused your cancer because you did not think in a positive way.

Today, these beliefs have been replaced with blame over behaviors. Those who have lung cancer have done this to themselves because they smoked (although 10 to 15 percent of those with lung cancer never smoked). Those with skin cancer have done this to themselves through their disregard to proper sun protection. In other words, "You asked for this so don't complain now that you have it." Charlotte Huff, in an article on, theorizes that these attitudes are driven by the "accusers'" own insecurities and need to reassure themselves that this won't happen to them. "I take care of myself therefore nothing bad will happen to me."

No matter what the reason, it is never helpful to blame someone for their illness. It minimizes their struggles to fight off this disease. It minimizes their pain. Rather than accuse or interogate someone about their behaviors, when you find out someone has cancer, simply say, "I am sorry you are going through this. How about if I bring dinner over to your house next week? (or whatever you might want to offer to do)" Simply offer your support and love.


[1] "Unraveling the 'Type C' Connection: Is There a Cancer Personality?" Date Unknown, Staff Writer,

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.