Although, it has not been scientifically established whether stress increases your susceptibility to disease, the complex relationship between physical and psychological health cannot be undermined.
A complex psychological stress may include death of a family member/a close friend or associate, abuse, health problems, financial crisis and domestic problems. The usual manner in which the human body responds to stress is by releasing hormones such as epinephrine, and cortisol. Such stress hormones increases blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. Chronic, persisting and progressive stress over long periods of time is bound to be harmful. Stress levels can also increase risk of obesity, depression and other illnesses.
Stress - the cancer factor
Studies indicate that there exists an indirect relationship between stress and certain types of virus related tumors. As chronic stress weakens a person's immune system, this in turn can cause virus- associated cancers, such as Kaposi sarcoma or lymphomas.
However, more recent studies indicate that the body's neuroendrocrine response to hormones can alter important processes that take place in cells. This can protect against formation of cancer such as DNA repair and regulation of cell growth. As such, stress can result in behaviors such as overeating, smoking or abusing drugs or alcohol, which may cause risk of cancer.
Stress and breast cancer
Many women undergo stress in the current environment. Financial concerns, family and health issues and work life balance place increased stress. There are case studies that go to show that intense stress from changes in life, such as divorce, death of a loved one or relocation can cause an emotional vulnerability which affects your body.
There is a tendency to overlook our own emotional and physical needs. This could translate to lack of nutrition, inadequate sleep and lack of exercise. These can contribute to the development of breast cancer. Tension, fear anxiety and sleep disturbance raise the risk of suffering breast cancer disease at a later stage in life. And a study reveals that women who suffer stress are twice as likely to develop breast cancer.
Stressors are varied and even certain common life event may trigger stress responses.
Emotional stress or distress and breast cancer
As Katherine Russell Rich in her book 'The Red Devil' suggests, 'You can't tell me I didn't have breakup cancer', when she finds a breast lump right after a divorce and is diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer.
Elizabeth Edwards in her autobiography 'Saving Graces' narrates that she found her breast lump during her husband's campaign for Vice President. There are many instances to suggest that after a period of chronic stress or significant loss, they found a lump and were diagnosed with cancer.
There is yet another research done by a group of Israeli scientists who conducted a study on women less than 45 years. They found that young women who endured two or more traumatic events in their life had a higher than average rate of depression and greater vulnerability to breast cancer. The younger a woman when a crisis hits her, the greater is her risk for cancer.
Another study at a European Cancer Conference in Copenhagen presented the fact that those women who had reported stress for a month or more during the five years preceding the start of the study had double the risk. Factors like smoking, weight, alcohol intake, age of first pregnancy and age of menopause, were all taken into consideration and still the increase in breast cancer risk remained, with stress the only obvious causal factor. The lead author, Dr Osten Helgesson in this context said, 'This study showed a statistically significant, positive relationship between stress and breast cancer'. But he adds that, 'more research needs to be carried out before it can be said that stress definitely increases a woman's risk'.
Stress affects the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. This does not mean that everybody who is stressed gets sick or cancer. As doctors put it, there is a tendency in highly stressed people to drink, eat and smoke more - thus indirectly raising the risk of various types of cancer. Stress triggers lifestyle responses that affect health.
Many cancer research studies indicate that stress can impact the risk of breast cancer recurrence and sometimes even death from breast cancer. This is due to the suppression of the immune system.
When there was professional psychological intervention to reduce stress in these patients, the risk of breast cancer recurrence reduced by about 45% and death due to breast cancer to more than 50%.
In yet another study, when breast cancer patients received counseling with a trained psychologist designed to teach ways to reduce stress, it was found that about breast cancer was less likely to recur in about 60%.
It was also found that in recurrent breast cancer patients who received psychological intervention, immune system function was stronger after 12 months after recurrence compared to breast cancer patients who did not receive psychological intervention to reduce stress.
Hence, reducing stress after breast cancer diagnosis is an important part of the recovery process. Reduced stress means improved quality of life for long years to come.
Ways to combat stress
A consultant for the American Cancer Society involved in group stress reduction classes for cancer patients and survivors underlines the following tips for stress management.
Deep breathing: When under stress, breathe deeply to enable more oxygen in the blood stream. This can help control emotions and stay calm, while the typical breathing when in stress is shallow. To start, place your hands over your belly, and slowly breathe in through the nose. The stomach expands and then slowly exhales. This can be done 10 -20 times daily.
Meditation: This is another way to calm the body and mind by focusing attention on one thing at a time. Stay in coordination with yourself through your breath. Try to meditate for at least 10 minutes a day.
Focusing on the present moment, the here and now, without getting distracted by what happened yesterday or tomorrow - and taking pleasure in the simple things can help relieve stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps women deal with the side effects of treatment for breast cancer as well as handle physical changes such as anger, grief, fear, and uncertainty.
Breast cancer is largely a disease driven by the hormone estrogen and feelings of stress may cause changes in hormone levels that can affect healthy cell growth within the breast. Currently, there is no clear-cut evidence to prove that stress is a direct cause of breast cancer, and that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the two - but evidence is accumulating that there is some link between stress and developing certain kind of cancer as well as how the disease progresses.
More importantly, it is better to understand that stress is a part of our lives although depending on our personalities, backgrounds and situation we respond differently. It is wise to learn to reduce stress and improve overall health to enjoy life in its wellness for a long time.