Dr Jozelle Miller
February 2, 2016
Linking psychological stress and cancer?

­­­Psychological stress describes what people feel when they are under mental, physical, or emotional pressure. Although it is normal to experience some psychological stress from time to time, people who experience high levels of psychological stress or who experience it repeatedly over a long period of time may develop health problems (mental and/or physical). The body responds to physical, mental, or emotional pressure by releasing stress hormones (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) that increase blood pressure,{{more}} speed heart rate, and raise blood sugar levels. These changes help a person act with greater strength and speed to escape a perceived threat.

Research has shown that people who experience intense and long-term (i.e. chronic) stress can have digestive problems, fertility problems, urinary problems, and a weakened immune system. People who experience chronic stress are also more prone to viral infections, such as the flu or common cold and to have headaches, sleep trouble, depression, and anxiety.

Can psychological stress cause cancer?

Although stress can cause a number of physical health problems, the evidence that it can cause cancer is weak. Some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, but others have not.

Apparent links between psychological stress and cancer could arise in several ways. For example, people under stress may develop certain behaviours, such as smoking, overeating, or drinking alcohol, which increase a person’s risk for cancer. Or someone who has a relative with cancer may have a higher risk for cancer because of a shared inherited risk factor, not because of the stress induced by the family member’s diagnosis.

How does psychological stress affect people who have cancer?

People who have cancer may find the physical, emotional, and social effects of the disease to be stressful. Those who attempt to manage their stress with risky behaviours, such as smoking or drinking alcohol, or who become more sedentary, may have a poorer quality of life after cancer treatment. In contrast, people who are able to use effective coping strategies to deal with stress, such as relaxation and stress management techniques, have been shown to have lower levels of depression, anxiety, and symptoms related to the cancer and its treatment. However, there is no evidence that successful management of psychological stress improves cancer survival.

Evidence from experimental studies does suggest that psychological stress can affect a tumour’s ability to grow and spread. For example, some studies have shown that when mice bearing human tumours were kept confined or isolated from other mice-conditions that increase stress – their tumours were more likely to grow and spread (metastasize).

How can people who have cancer learn to cope with psychological stress?

Emotional and social support can help patients learn to cope with psychological stress. Such support can reduce levels of depression, anxiety, and disease- and treatment-related symptoms among patients. Approaches can include the following:

o Training in relaxation, meditation, or stress management

o Counselling

o Cancer education sessions

o Cancer support groups, such as SCORCH Cancer support foundation in SVG

o Medications for depression or anxiety

o Exercise

So, as we commemorate WORLD CANCER DAY on 4th February, 2016, let us all make the effort to reach out to someone we may know is challenged by the effects of cancer. Let us be supportive and compassionate, as we press on with our fight against ALL forms of cancer.

Dr Miller is Health Psychologist at the Milton Cato Memorial Hospital.