Is Your Stress Causing Cancer?

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Tumors can grow for two to five years before they are large enough to be detected on a mammogram.

Lately, my mom has had a non-stop, high-stress level compared with her normal carefree life. It all started five years ago when she became a first grade teacher in a highly competitive school district. Last year alone, she took her kids on six different field trips, all requiring extensive planning, and two of which required hours-long bus trips up and down California. Many of her kids were ELL (English Language Learners), for whom she spent her unpaid extra time before and after school to personally tutor them to get them up to grade level.

Five days a week she left the house before 5am with a 40-minute commute, even though she didn’t have to be there until 8, just so she could prepare for her day, and she wouldn’t return home until about 5pm. The first few years were very rough, and she often came home in tears. Things got better as she adjusted to her new routine, but she never got less busy, as she couldn’t bear to let any of her kids “fall through the cracks.” She was so tired that upon coming home from work would just crash on the couch and then couldn’t sleep at night. On the weekends her body was so tired from the stress and lack of sleep, that she didn’t want to do anything but watch TV to unwind and sleep. When Sunday night came around, she got depressed because she knew she had to start the whole thing all over again.

Meditation for cancerI’m not saying that my mom’s stress directly caused her cancer. I know many factors play into our bodies not catching the abnormal cells and eliminating them, such as genetics, exposure to carcinogens, lifestyle, and sometimes what seems to be a random, unexplained event. But stress does cause our bodies to release hormones, such as epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, which, if are chronically present, could harm our autonomic nervous system and weaken our immune system, and therefore our ability to get rid of cancer cells before they begin to multiply. Those hormones can directly support tumor growth and spread.

“Stress is linked indirectly to the immune system’s anti-tumor defenses, but it can also affect anoikis– a type of cell death that cancer cells bypass,” Katie Moisse reports in her article “Does Stress Feed Cancer?,” in the Scientific American.

Other researchers found similar links between stress and cancer. In this case, researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago studied 989 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

“The researchers also found that women with the most stress were 18% more likely to be diagnosed with high-grade tumors, which are more aggressive than low-grade tumors,” reported Karen Kaplan in her Los Angeles Times article, “Stress and Aggressive Breast Cancer Go Together.”

“More specifically, the researchers found that stressed women were 38% more likely to have cancers that were estrogen receptor-negative,” Kaplan said.

My mom’s cancer is aggressive and estrogen-receptor negative, triple negative, in fact, which means no hormone therapy will be effective in treating her.

Other cancer patients believe stress is behind their diagnosis as well. Christina Koenig, who was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39, asked her oncologist, “How long has it been in there?” The answer was five to ten years. She states that she had been going through the stress of divorce for four years before her diagnosis. In the 2005, Koenig’s story was mentioned in a New York Times article by Gina Kolata, titled “Is There a Link Between Stress and Cancer?” The article also mentions Jim Kiefert of Olympia, Wash., who swears it was stress that caused his prostate cancer.

Seattle studies tend to agree. Polly Newcomb, the head of the cancer prevention program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, found that almost all of her 1,000 subjects felt that stress was responsible for their cancer, even though there was no direct association in stressful events in the previous five years and a diagnosis of cancer.

The jury is still out, but I still think there’s enough evidence to convict.

Don’t want cancer? My advice to you is to eat healthy, stay active, and chill out!

Stay tuned for next week’s blog, where I will share some effective ways to decrease your baseline stress level and how to know if it’s working in your life.

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