Breast Cancer and Stress

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Everyone has been touched by cancer; through family members, friends, or coworkers. Cancer does not discriminate; it affects people of all races, genders and classes. It is caused by a DNA glitch. DNA is a part of the cell that directs cell reproduction and growth. Instead of allowing for the normal, slow growth of new cells, the impaired DNA causes quick cell growth and reproduction, which takes a toll on the body. Breast cancer is a disease that mainly affects women and it is the leading type of cancer by sex and site for women, and the second leading cause of death by sex and site for women, after lung cancer. (1) In 2011, it is estimated that 23, 400 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 5, 100 will die from it; approximately 64 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer on a daily basis; approximately 14 Canadian women will die of breast cancer on a daily basis; 1 in 9 women is expected to develop breast cancer during her lifetime (until age 90) and 1 in 28 will die from it; 190 men will be diagnosed with it and 55 will die from it. The good news is that breast cancer death rates have declined in all ages combined and in every age group since the mid-1990s. (2) Different lifestyle factors and genetics can have an impact on the incidence of breast cancer. (3) But what about stress; how does stress affect breast cancer incidence and treatment? The idea of stress having an impact on cancer development is not a new one. Many observations were made in the 18th and 19th centuries by physicians who studied cancer patients and found that many of them suffered from precursory problems of a serious form prior to cancer diagnosis. Whether these stressors had caused the cancer was the main question, and if the stress had to be long term or short term. (4) A study by Jacobs et al., 2000, examined the effect of chronic and early stress on breast cancer. They reviewed the role of parental death and chronic depression as a risk for developing this disease. 1, 213 women were interviewed and followed over a period of twenty years. 29 of the women were hospitalized for breast cancer and 10 died of it. It was found that for these 29 women, maternal death in childhood and chronic depression with severe episodes that occurred at least twenty years before hospitalization increased the risk of breast cancer. More recent life events, depression or anxiety issues did not appear to have an effect on the increased risk of breast cancer. (5)

A study by Priestman et al., 1985, analyzed if short term stress produced an increased risk of breast cancer. 100 women already diagnosed with breast cancer, as well as 100 women with benign breast lumps and 100 healthy women were all given a questionnaire documenting stressful life events that they had experienced during the last three years. They also filled out a personality profile. It was found that there was no difference between the amount of stressful life events for the women with malignant breast lumps when compared to the women with benign breast lumps. There was also no difference in the types and severity of stressful life events that they encountered, and their personality profiles were similar. The healthy control group appeared to have the highest levels of stress accounts, more than the breast cancer group and the benign lump group. The researchers could not find a link between recent stress and malignant breast lump formation, but they admitted that some of the lumps could have possibly grown previous to the three years involved in the study, and could possibly be caused by earlier exposure to stress. (6) Stress can have a profound impact on the immune system of a breast cancer patient. Chronic stress can cause the immune system to malfunction, which can make it more difficult for the body to fight the disease. Depression, which can be caused by stress, can weaken the immune system, reduce natural killer (NK) activity, and reduce T cell reproduction. NK cells and...
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