How much does psychological stress affect our chances of cancer recurrence? Could it be that how we process and handle fear, change, and tragedy could have a big impact on how long we stay in remission?
Researchers from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology think so. Their recent study showed that psychological stress prior to, during, and after surgery can impair the immune system, raising odds of cancer recurrence.
“The psychological stressors of surgery deal a blow to the immune system,” said lead researcher Professor Shamgar Ben-Eliyahu, “but this is hardly discussed in the medical community. Ours is among the first studies to show that psychological fear may be no less important than real physiological tissue damage in suppressing immune competence.”
Ben-Eliyahu adds that timing is everything after cancer surgery, and that the immune system needs to be functioning at high levels to kill the remaining bits of tumor tissue that are scattered around the body. Stress hormones can get in the way. An earlier study found that by blocking these stress hormones, cancer cells could be reduced and survival rates increased.
This isn’t the only study pointing to this connection. Researchers at London’s ICRF Clinical Oncology Unit and Department of Psychiatry at Guy’s Hospital found that breast cancer was more likely to recur in women who had experienced severe life stresses. A life event was considered severe if it had threatening implications in the long term-like the death of a husband or child, or a divorce. Those women who had experienced such stresses were nine times more likely to have a relapse of the breast cancer. They added that coping behavior and social support could modify the impact of these life stressors, to reduce risk.
A later study in London, however, was unable to repeat these results, and did not show the same connection between stress and recurrence. On the other hand, a more recent study by scientists at Ohio State University showed that breast cancer patients who had gone through psychological intervention had a lower risk of cancer recurrence. The study followed over 200 women for 11 years, and found those who were taught relaxation methods (such as muscular relaxation) had a much lower chance of the cancer coming back than did women who had only psychological assessments.
If you survive cancer, then experience a stressful event in your life, the last thing you want to do is fear a recurrence. Some studies show a connection, but others don’t. So far, we don’t really know how much impact stress can have on the return of cancer cells-so please, don’t add to your stress by stressing about your stress! We do know, however, that emotions like anxiety, anger, and isolation-especially if repressed-can impair the immune system. According to Chinese author Jia Kun, in his book, Prevention and Treatment of Carcinoma in Traditional Chinese Medicine, “Emotional changes such as worry, fear, hesitation, anger, irritation, and nervousness should be prevented. Mental exhaustion is harmful and life should be enriched with entertainment.”
The answer is not to worry if you feel stressed-just encourage relaxation as much as possible. Practicing regular calming techniques can help you cope with the stresses life inevitably throws at you, and keep your cells healthy and cancer free. Join a support group, and try the progressive muscle relaxation therapy used in the aforementioned Ohio Study.
Have you adapted new stress-relieving techniques after surviving cancer? Please share any tips you may have.
Photo courtesy siggito via Flickr.com.