There’s no escaping it: stress is a part of our lives. How we handle that stress can have an impact on our health. Every day, we hear more and more about the harm it may cause our minds and bodies,- from heart disease to anxiety attacks. Now researchers are trying to determine if stress is also a factor in who will develop cancer.
Currently, there is no evidence that stress is a direct cause of cancer. But evidence is accumulating that there is some link between stress and developing certain kinds of cancer, as well as how the disease progresses.
Hundreds of studies have measured how stress impacts our immune systems and fights disease. At Ohio State University, researcher Dr. Ron Glaser, Ph.D., found that students under pressure had slower-healing wounds and took longer to produce immune system cells that kill invading organisms. Renowned researcher Dr. Dean Ornish, M.D., who has spent 20 years examining the effects of stress on the body, found that stress-reduction techniques could actually help reverse heart disease. And Dr. Barry Spiegel, M.D., a leader in the field of psychosomatic medicine, found that metastatic breast cancer patients lived longer when they participated in support groups.
Other studies have gone as far as to show those women who experienced traumatic life events or losses in previous years had significantly higher rates of breast cancer.
Still, the National Cancer Institute reports, “Although studies have shown that stress factors, such as death of a spouse, social isolation, and medical school examinations, alter the way the immune system functions, they have not provided scientific evidence of a direct cause-and-effect relationship between these immune system changes and the development of cancer.”
Nonetheless, some medical experts say therein lies the link between cancer and stress — if stress decreases the body’s ability to fight disease, it loses the ability to kill cancer cells.
Every day, our bodies are exposed to cancer-causing agents in the air, food and water we’re exposed to. Typically, our immune system recognizes those abnormal cells and kills them before they produce a tumor. There are three important things that can happen to prevent cancer from developing — the immune system can prevent the agents from invading in the first place, DNA can repair the abnormal cells or killer T-cells can kill off cancer cells.
Research has shown that stress can lower the body’s ability to do each of those things, according to Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., assistant professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Does that mean there’s a direct link between stress and the risk of developing cancer? Not necessarily, Cohen said.
Part of the reason stress may be linked to cancer, he said, is simply that when people are under pressure they make poor choices — they begin smoking, stop exercising, start eating unhealthy foods — all factors that are also linked to cancer.
Even if that’s not the case, “there are a lot of things that have to happen for cancer to develop. I think it’s fair to say that stress could be one of the many components in lowering immune systems and therefore making us more susceptible to cancer and a faster progression of the disease. But stress might just be one piece of the puzzle — what percentage is the question. I fall back on the fact that regardless of what percentage it might be, it’s a percentage we’re more in control of. We can’t control genetics, but we can change how we respond to stress,” he said, adding that it’s not necessarily the stress itself as much as the way people handle stress that may be linked to disease.
That’s why it’s important the public understand the connection between stress and cancer, despite a lack of hard scientific evidence, according to Dr. Thomas J. Barnard, M.D., spokesman for the Physicians for Responsible Medicine and a practicing physician in Ontario.
“When you take the scientific information we have and combine it with the common sense evidence, there’s clearly a link. Part of the problem we have in Western medicine is what we consider acceptable evidence,” said Barnard, who teaches human biology and nutrition at the University of Guelph in Ontario and is an author.
“It would be nicer to have these markers more obvious, but I don’t think we need cemented evidence before we encourage people to start moving in the direction of better health,” he said.
“My advice for healthy living is this: Eat good food, get good exercise, be kind, be calm. It kind of incorporates what your grandma told you, but it may take science awhile to catch up with that.”
OK, you now know that stress may have a negative impact on your health. But you also know you’re never going to be completely rid of stress. The key isn’t in doing away with all of life’s pressures but in how you handle them on a daily basis.
Here are some tips for stress management from Reina Marino, M.D., a Philadelphia-based physician and a consultant for the American Cancer Society, in developing a group stress reduction class for cancer patients and survivors.
When you are under stress, you often inhale from your chest, which tends to be a more shallow and constricted way of breathing. Breathing deeply, inhaling from your abdomen instead of your chest, provides more oxygen to your bloodstream and can help you control your emotions and stay calm.
To start, place your hands over your belly and slowly breathe in through your nose. Feel your stomach expand, then slowly exhale. Do this 10 to 20 minutes a day.
Meditation is a way to calm your body and mind by focusing your attention on one thing, such as a phrase, an object or your breathing. The most common way of meditating is to pick a word or phrase that you can say to yourself in coordination with your breathing. If you use a single word, repeat it when exhaling. If you are using a few words, try coordinating some of the words on the in breath and some on the out breath. It’s ideal to mediate at least 10 to 20 minutes a day.
Can you picture the way the seashore looked the last time you were there or imagine the smell of your mom’s apple pie baking? If so, you can practice imagery, which is simply creating a mental picture or scene that can help soothe and relax you. What colors do you see? What sounds or scents are associated with this place? What is the temperature like? Try to use all of your senses to create a more vivid picture.
Mindfulness is simply focusing on the present moment, concentrating on the here-and-now. As you go to or from work, notice your surroundings, appreciate the look of the sky or the sound of a bird. While at work or at home, try to focus on the task or project at hand, without thinking about what you have to do in the next hour or next day. Take pleasure in simple things, like savoring a good meal or laughing with your family and friends. Try not to get distracted by what happened yesterday or what may happen tomorrow. Enjoy today.