Stress taxes your body’s biological functions in a number of ways, with one study finding that it may even play a role in the development of breast cancer. The autonomic nervous system helps to regulate respiration, heart rate, and other integral bodily functions. Psychosocial stress, such as fear and anxiety, negatively impact the autonomic nervous system which could explain the link.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago examined 989 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and found that the women with the most stress were most likely to have aggressive forms of breast cancer. They say that their findings may support the notion that stress can increase the risk of more aggressive breast cancer. But, they caution, the study has shortcomings.
The study participants had all been diagnosed no earlier than 3 months prior to the study. They were asked a range of questions, all targeting just how much stress the patient was under. Those women who had the most aggressive form of breast cancer also had the highest stress levels.
In particular, women under significant stress were 38 percent more likely to have estrogen receptor-negative cancers, or cancer that doesn’t respond to some of the more common therapies which cut off estrogen supply (Tamoxifen, Arimidex, etc.). Also, the women with higher stress levels were more likely to have high-grade (more aggressive) tumors.
The problem with the study is that there is no real way to tell how much stress the women were under before their diagnosis, and certainly a diagnosis of aggressive breast cancer is likely to cause a significant amount of stress.
However, there is a good chance that the women were under stress before the diagnosis and the cancer only added to their stress levels.
“It’s not clear what’s driving this association,” said lead researcher Garth Rauscher. “It may be that the level of stress in these patients’ lives influenced tumor aggressiveness. It may be that being diagnosed with a more aggressive tumor, with a more worrisome diagnosis and more stressful treatments, influenced reports of stress. It may be that both of these are playing a role in the association. We don’t know the answer to that question.”
There is no doubt that stress levels can impact our health. Stress is a known contributor to depression, cardiovascular disease, and even HIV/AIDS. So, it wouldn’t be a reach to find it associated with more aggressive cancer.