Stress affects us physically and psychologically. In the case of a perceived threat such as cancer, the body undergoes a build up of internal tension to prepare for swift and powerful action. Under stressful circumstances, the brain signals the adrenal glands to produce corticosteroids, hormones which weaken the immune response. Corticosteroids exert such a powerful immune-suppressive effect that synthetic steroids are widely used as drugs to suppress immunity in allergic conditions and the rejection of transplanted organs. Cancerous processes are accelerated in the presence of large amounts of corticosteroids and other stress-related hormones.
Among the stress-related emotional factors that play a role in reducing cancer resistance are depression, grief, repressed anger, hopelessness, helplessness and a high degree of passivity or social conformity. Certain cancers have also been associated with distressing life events. For example, the risk of developing breast cancer is significantly higher if the woman has experienced the loss of a spouse or close friend. A recent cancer research study notes that major stressful life events can contribute to cancer morbidity.
Stressful experiences can strongly influence the risk of contracting a type of skin cancer called melanoma cancer. Cancer researchers at Yale University examined the effect of major life events on the cancer study of 56 melanoma cancer patients versus a control group of 56 general surgical patients. Among the melanoma cancer patients, there had been significantly more divorces or marital separations, bankruptcies, unemployment and death of a spouse or family member in the five years prior to their cancer diagnosis.
Several cancer research studies have shown that NK cell activity is depressed in individuals under stress. In light of these findings, Sandra Levy, Ph.D and her coworkers at the Pittsburg Cancer Institute contend that NK cell activity is an important predictor of prognosis in breast cancer and have accounted for a significant portion of the NK cell suppression on the basis of stress factors.
No scientific evidence has yet found that stress and emotions can directly cause cancer. The most plausible link to cancer is an indirect effect via the immune system. When immunity is weakened by stress, particularly in the presence of biological stressors such as a fatty diet or environmental pollution, then cancer can thrive and grow.
Personality Linked with Cancer Prevention
A recent cancer research study of melanoma cancer patients found that those with the most “major life stress” in their backgrounds actually showed a greater will to confront and fight their cancer and less avoidance of the cancer disease’s frightening aspects.
Theories connecting personality to cancer prevention dates back to at least second-century Greek physician Galen who noted a higher incidence of cancer in “melancholy” women as opposed to “sanguine” women. A 1988 study of 36 women with recurrent breast cancer found that positive attitudes were associated with longer periods of breast cancer survival rates. In another cancer study, 2,020 men were followed for a period 17 years. Those who scored highest on depression tests had twice the rate of cancer deaths.
Lydia Temoshok of the University of California, based on her psychological surveys of thousands of cancer patients, has identified a group of “nice” cancer patients who exhibit the Type C personality. Cancer patients with this personality are passive, unassertive and eager to please and refuse to let anger, fear or other strong negative feelings leak out. Even in the face of a life threatening disease such as cancer, Type C individuals will appear composed. Suppression of emotions appears to be linked to higher cancer risk, especially breast cancer and melanoma cancer. Type C’s may also have a worse prognosis when they hear about their cancer diagnosis like the case of unassertive, compliant women who tend to have a shorter survival time for metastatic breast cancer. On the other hand, women who show a “fighting spirit” – a combative attitude toward the cancer disease – appear to have a longer cancer-free interval and overall longer survival.
Another Type C theory includes poor diets and nutritional imbalances that have left them more susceptible to cancer. It’s excessive smoking, drinking, and poor eating habits that account for cancer deaths among bachelors according to a cancer study done at the University of California, San Francisco.
The Anti-Cancer Mind: Cancer Prevention Through Relaxation Methods
Various cancer studies also suggest that the mind can enhance our immunity against cancer, thus having a stronger chance for cancer prevention. Dr. Steven Locke, director of the Psychoimmunology Research Project at Harvard Medical School, describes more than 200 studies on the treatment of cancer by “mind/body” methods. Among methods often used by cancer patients are those which reduce anxiety, such as meditation relaxation techniques. A reduction in the anxiety, depression and helplessness that often accompany the cancer disease can make it easier to make decisions about the treatment of cancer.
A cancer support group can also provide invaluable emotional stability and relief. Being around healthy and positive people is also important in battling the cancer disease. Healthy and playful children are good companions during times of treatment for cancer. Based on his extensive work with cancer patients, Dr. Bernie Siegel notes that cancer survivors who enjoy a high quality of life tend to express their anger and other negative emotions freely. He encourages friends and family members of cancer patients to become the cancer help and support group of the cancer patient during the healing process.
Just as rest supports the immune system in times of stress, meditation may be one of the more effective ways of relaxing the body and strengthening its anti-cancer defenses. The idea of meditation is not to suppress, analyze or judge these aspects of the psyche – even those that seem negative or disturbing. Practicing this for 15 to 20 minutes at a time results in a kind of dynamic awareness in which the mind is alertly attentive, yet also tranquil. One begins to enjoy the simpler pleasures in life, and attitude improves dramatically.
Whether or not meditation is capable of cancer prevention or treatment of cancer remains to be proven. However meditation can be a helpful adjunct to any cancer prevention or treatment for cancer program, mainly by helping the meditator feel more at peace and more in control of cancer’s stressful aspects.
Imagery and Relaxation Training
Relaxation training involves a variety of techniques designed to induce relaxation in the muscles, which then produces a sense of calm and imagery refers to the creation and interpretation of mental images. In theory, these methods could promote enhanced immune system functioning. The cancer patients at the Simonton Cancer Center in Palisades, California, uses relaxation and mental imagery daily to motivate themselves to make positive changes in their lives and to recover their health after battling cancer. After an initial period of relaxation, the cancer patient is instructed to visualize the cancer tumor as a soft, weak, disorganized mass of cells. Conventional treatment of cancer either cancer chemotherapy or cancer radiation, is then visualized as strongly effective, capable of shrinking the cancer tumors and destroying stray cancer cells. The cancer patient is urged to visualize defending himself or herself against cancer through an aggressive immune system in which white blood cells act as a powerful army easily overwhelming the pesky cancer cells. Dead and dying cancer tumor cells are visualized as being flushed out of the body until all the cancer cells are gone. Finally, the patient is instructed to imagine him or herself as healthy, vital and fulfilled.
Other studies suggest that relaxation training can improve one’s ability to cope with the unpleasant effects of cancer and may also augment the body’s ability to fight the cancer disease. Whether or not cancer survival rates actually increase, these cancer researches indicate that the quality of life cancer patients definitely improves with the regular use of imagery and relaxation techniques.
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Exercise and Stress
How does exercise reduce stress?
Exercise increases your overall health and your sense of well-being, which puts more pep in your steps every day. But exercise also has some direct stress-busting benefits.
* It pumps up your endorphins. Physical activity helps to bump up the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Although this function is often referred to as a runner’s high, a rousing game of tennis or a nature hike also can contribute to this same feeling.
* It’s meditation in movement. After a fast-paced game of racquetball or several laps in the pool, you’ll often find that you’ve forgotten the day’s dilemmas and irritations and concentrated only on your body’s movements. As you begin to regularly shed your daily tensions through movement and physical activity, you may find that this focus on a single task, and the resulting energy and optimism, can help you remain calm and clear in everything that you do.
* It improves your mood. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. This can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.
Please read our post on another weapon against cancer; exercise!
Supplements can Help with Stress
One effective method of stress relief management involves the use of vitamins. Taking in extra nutrients helps to ensure that the body will have adequate amounts in store to combat stress. Among the most important stress vitamins are the B-complex vitamins and the Vitamin C.
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