Stress and Cancer
Few events are as stressful as a diagnosis of cancer. As the stress level increases, the outpouring of the adrenal cortex hormone (cortisol) also increases. Women with breast cancer who had abnormal cortisol rhythms survived an average of 3.2 years, while those with normal rhythms survived an average of 4.5 years (more than a year longer). The difference in survival times began to emerge about 1 year after the cortisol testing and continued for at least 6 additional years (Richter 2000).
Animal studies, mostly involving rats, demonstrated stress as a causal factor in cancer. The onset of cancer appears similarly allied in humans, with the immune system highly responsive to emotional pitfalls. It is well established that when the individual is emotionally challenged, cancer has a significant advantage (Levy et al. 1987).
Psychobiologist Shamgar Ben-Eliyahu, Ph.D., has been working for the past decade on stress, tumor development, and the activity of NK cells (Ben-Eliyahu et al. 2000). Considering all immune system cells, NK cells show the strongest activity in preventing metastasis and the strongest response to stress. Even short-term stress decreases NK cell activity in laboratory animals, significantly increasing the risk of certain types of cancer and metastasis. Gender plays a significant role in the NK cell response to stress, with men more adversely affected than women (Pehlivanoglu 2012). The stress of abdominal surgery promotes the growth of cancerous tumors in rats, a sequence thought orchestrated by NK cell suppression (Ben-Eliyahu et al. 1999).
High levels of neuropeptide-gamma are observed in the bloodstream of depressed individuals, an elevation synonymous with immune suppression (Ader et al. 1981; Scanlan et al. 2001). Macrophages (pathogen scavengers) have receptor sites that attract endorphins (mood enhancers with analgesic traits). With the right emotional programming, white blood cells swim through the bloodstream with determination; conversely, under stress, immune competence falters, and the immune attack becomes lethargic.
Breast cancer patients with the most anxiety had a weaker immune response and were less equipped to fight the disease. The following stress-associated situations and personality types are associated with breast cancer: (1) the use of denial or repression as a coping strategy, (2) an experience of separation or loss, (3) a history of stressful life experiences, (4) a tendency toward melancholy and hopelessness (this trait has, since antiquity, been associated with uterine and breast cancers), and (5) a personality type characterized by conflict avoidance. It is theorized that the genes that cause one to avoid conflict are the same genes that increase susceptibility to cancer (Goodkin et al. 1986; Darmon 1993).
Also, psychological stress induces the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as TNF-alpha, IL-6, and IL-10 (Maes et al. 2000), which play a role in malignancies.
The effect of chronic stress on the immune system of 116 recently treated breast cancer patients found (reproducibly) that stress levels significantly predicted (1) lower NK cell activity, (2) diminished response of NK cells to interferon-gamma, and (3) decreased proliferation of lymphocytes, white blood cells considered the army of the immune system (Andersen et al. 1998). Oncologists often suggest stress management, such as meditation, yoga and breathing exercises, guided imagery, or spirituality, to help bring about calm.
Because the cells responsible for cancer surveillance work best in an environment favoring confidence and calm, it is important that the message springing from our thoughts and transmitted to cells is commensurate with healing. Fright, pessimism, and melancholy send uncertain instructions and the cells respond with a feeble effort. The enduring message (fear or assurance, despair or hopefulness, laughter or tears) reflects our hour-to-hour psyche and sets the tone for health victories or failures. Expect little more from your body than the quality of your thoughts at this very moment: "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he" (Proverbs 23:7).