Study Suggests Link Between Stress and Aggressive Breast Cancer

November 12, 2012

Study Suggests Link Between Stress and Aggressive Breast Cancer

A new study offered some important findings to the American Association for Cancer Research Conference on the Science of Cancer Health Disparities, in Washington D.C. recently. It found that women with breast cancer appear to suffer different levels of stress. And that black and Hispanic women suffer more stress than their white counterparts. The researchers have also connected this increased stress to more aggressive tumors.

The study’s authors urge caution and say that the research is still in its preliminary stages. The further state that the findings should be considered as preliminary until they have been peer-reviewed in a published medical journal.

The researchers say that they have found that stress levels are high after diagnosis of breast cancer but they do not know what the stress levels were before diagnosis. This means that they do not know if stress levels rose after diagnosis and if they did increase if that increase was the cause of the aggressive form of cancer developing.

However what has been seen has encouraged lead author, Garth H. Rauscher, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health, to explain that the findings could indicate why black and Hispanic women generally get the more aggressive form of breast Cancer. Rauscher also acknowledges that this is still unconfirmed.

He goes on to say, “One possible reason for that, among others, could be differences in the role of stress in influencing the development of breast cancer”.

Almost 1,000 women took part in the research and all had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. The women replied to surveys questioning about feelings of loneliness, fear and anxiety as a way to measure the amount of stress they were feeling. In addition to this, tests to examine how aggressive the tumors were also took place.

The researchers then examined the results of the surveys and found that of the 397 white women taking part 11% were considered to have high levels of stress. But for black and Hispanic women the numbers were much higher. In Hispanic women, 24% from a group of 181 had what researchers considered being higher stress levels. In the group of 411 black women, 22% indicated higher levels of stress. No other minority groups were considered for this test.

Rauscher reports that although the study identified the stress levels, it does not identify whether stress was caused by the tumor or whether the tumor is more aggressive because of the stress, or even if the stress has been there all the time. He advocates more research into the subject.

He asks, “If we’d interviewed these women one year or five years or 10 years prior to diagnosis, would these same women have reported greater levels of stress than their counterparts in the study? It’s fairly reasonable to assume there’s a correlation in the level of stress they report after diagnosis and what they reported prior to that, but we don’t have any data to say that’s true”.

Rauscher does note that the new research supports earlier findings from tests with rodents. In those tests it was found that breast cancer grew more aggressively when the rats were isolated and subjected to stress producing situations.

Dr. Laura Kruper, is an assistant professor and cancer surgeon working at the City of Hope Cancer Center in Duarte, California, and she says that the link between cancer and stress has yet to be proved. However she does accept that it is possible. She also says what most people accept, that a cancer diagnosis will increase stress levels.

Of the study she says, “To clearly show an association between higher stress levels and the aggressiveness of breast cancer, patients would have to be followed for many years prior to diagnosis to see if patients with higher levels of stress developed more aggressive forms of cancer”. She also points out that the study doesn’t permit any conclusions to be drawn regarding the association between stress and aggressive tumors.

Kruper, when talking about stress in patients who have recently been diagnosed with cancer says that it is quite common to prescribe low dose antidepressants. She does say though that most patients only need these drugs to help them through their treatment, and they can be useful to combat cancer treatment’s side effects.

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