Studies show that a large proportion of women diagnosed with breast cancer are convinced that their disease results from a major life stress, such as an abortion, a divorce, a child’s illness or the loss of a job. Physicians, too, have long associated psychological stresses with cancer. However, there are studies available that contradict each other and oncologists today continue to disagree about whether or not we really bring cancer upon ourselves.
What can be said for sure is that no psychological factor by itself has ever been identified as being capable of creating that cancer seed. However, certain reactions to psychological stress can profoundly influence the cells where cancer develops. Stressful situations do not spark cancer, but they do give it an opportunity to grow faster. Recent studies have shown that the stress itself does not promote cancer development, but it is the perception of control or helplessness the individual has that affects their body’s reaction to the daisease.
An excellent example of how the psychological state of a cancer patient plays a role in the development of cancer, is the study performed by David Spiegel, MD., and Irvin Yalom, MD. In their study they formed groups of eight to ten women with metastic breast cancer, who met every week. They discussed their fear, their loneliness and their anger, as well as their desire and their ways of dealing with the disease. These women met regularly for a year before each went her own way. For the purposes of his study, David Spiegel first compared the psychological state of the participants with that of women with the same diagnosis and treatment, but who had not participated in the group. Dr. Spiegel learned that the women who had participated in the group were less subject to depression, anxiety and even physical pain. Dr. Spiegel followed up on his study by calling the families of the participants. Three out of fifty participants answered the telephone themselves, ten years after the discovery of their disease. Considering the seriousness of their condition, this was quite simply unbelievable. Not a single of the thirty-six women in the control group (those who didn’t participate in the group sessions) had survived so long. Next, by questioning the families about the length of time the support group women had survived, he observed that they had lived on average twice as long as the others. A difference could even be observed between those who had attended the group regularly and those who had participated sporadically. The more regularly a woman had attended, the longer she had lived.
A biological explanation for the negative effects of stress on cancer is related to the release of hormones. It is now known that stress causes the release of hormones that activate the body’s emergency systems – such as the inflammatory response, thus facilitating the growth and spread of tumors. At the same time, stress slows down all the functions that can be ‘put on hold’, such as digestion, tissue repair, and the immune system.
So what can be done about this stress? Dr. Servan Schreiber, in his book Anticancer, a new way of life, suggests to try yoga, meditation, qigong, or any other type of breathing exercises. Another obvious suggestion is to join a support group. For more information on support groups, try our support section.