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Stress and breast cancer

During last decades the stress is becoming a “normal” part of women life – career development, home, children, professional activities, complicated relations, family responsibilities. Generations of modern women experience growing levels of stress due to trying to balance work and home lives. What are the consequences of this modern stressful life?

Swedish researchers from the Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg say that being under stress may double a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. They performed the comprehensive work – 24-year study of 1462 women with follow-up examinations, tests and check-ups. Target was to check which women had suffered more breast cancer and what the most triggering factor was. Several possible breast cancer causes were taken into account. Unfortunately women with increased stress had increased frequency of breast cancer.

“This study showed a statistically significant, positive relationship between stress and breast cancer. One weakness was the study did not try to pinpoint exactly how much stress was needed to cause the disease. I would emphasize that more research needs to be carried out before it can be said that stress definitely increases a woman’s risk.”
Dr Östen Helgesson, General practitioner, Gothenburg, Sweden, 2003

Some experts suggest the link between stress and breast cancer could be due to hormonal changes which the body undergoes during stressful situations. Other experts believe that stress cause changes in immune system which could damage body’s ability to kill off cancerous cells, allowing disease to proliferate.

It is well known that very often breast cancer cells are hormone sensitive – sensitive to estrogen or progesterone. All hormonal changes which are happening during stress could increase levels of mentioned female hormones, could affect healthy cell growth within the breast and could trigger breast cancer development.

Stress could increase risks for breast cancer

Apparent links between different types of stress and breast cancer could arise in several ways – some women under stress may develop certain behaviors (smoking, overeating or drinking alcohol) which increase the risk for breast cancer.

Laboratory tests demonstrated that psychological stress can affect tumor’s ability to grow and spread. In one set of experiments, tumors transplanted into the mammary fat pads of mice had much higher rates of spread to the lungs and lymph nodes if the mice were chronically stressed than if the mice were not stressed. Studies in mice and in human cancer cells grown in the laboratory have found that the stress hormone norepinephrine could promote angiogenesis and metastasis.

Generally speaking, several mechanisms during stress could play not only risk factor for breast cancer development but could also stimulate grow of breast cancerous cells.

Stress and women with breast cancer

Stress and breast cancer

Women who already have breast cancer should avoid stress as much as possible. Cancer itself is already putting woman in dramatic emotional, physical and social stress. Levels of so called “stress hormones” are usually increased in women with breast cancer. Any additional stressful situations could play negative role during complicated difficult treatment and can also increase risks for recurrence.

Several experts suspected that stress (especially chronic stress) is playing very special role in cancer progression in humans. Some new research studies support that position.

UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center (funded in 1960) performed comprehensive studies on stress and cancer. According to their researchers, stress acts as a sort of fertilizer that significantly accelerates the spread and progression of breast cancer in animals. Immune cells, which normally protect the body against disease, are being biologically reprogrammed through stress into cells that actually help cancers grow and metastasize.

“What we showed for the first time is that chronic stress causes cancer cells to escape from the primary tumor and colonize distant organs. We showed how stress talks to the tumor and helps it to spread.”
Erica Sloan, Ph.D., Research Scientist at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.

In fact, the study found a 30-fold increase in cancer spread throughout the bodies of stressed mice compared to those that were not stressed.

Although there is still no strong evidence that stress directly affects cancer outcomes, some data do suggest that patients can develop a sense of helplessness or hopelessness when stress becomes overwhelming. This response is associated with higher rates of death, although the mechanism for this outcome is unclear.

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