The Effect of Stress on Blood Cancers

If you have a blood cancer such as leukemia or lymphoma, it is natural to feel some degree of stress or anxiety. These feelings may be caused by worry about the future, financial or family problems, or day-to-day issues such as getting to the cancer center or remembering to take medications. No matter what the cause, stress can have an impact on your health and possibly even on the outcome of your treatment.

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Can Stress Cause Cancer?

Over the years, many scientific studies have tried to determine if stress can cause cancer, or cause it to grow faster. When the body is under stress, it releases stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline—hormones that could, in the long term, cause your immune system to become suppressed (function not as well.) That is why you may notice that at times in your life when you were under a lot of pressure, such as exam time in school or just before a job interview, you came down with an illness. Scientists believe that this immune system suppression may make the body more susceptible to cancers such as lymphoma.

More recently, researchers have begun to investigate the relationship between stress and genetics. They have discovered that stressful situations may cause certain genes to become activated and others deactivated, leading to changes that could potentially impact the growth of cancer. As an example, science has determined that the stress hormone cortisol can change the body’s genetics and interfere with the ability of tumor-suppressing genes to do their job.

Stress and Outcomes

Another study published out of Ohio State University in September 2010 investigated the impact of stress, both psychological and physical, on cancer treatment outcomes. These researchers have found that stress in the body, including high-intensity exercises, activates a protein called heat shock factor-1 which in turn activates another protein called Hsp27. The presence of Hsp27 has been shown to potentially protect cancer cells from death, even after their DNA has been damaged by radiation or chemotherapy.

While this line of research is interesting, it can also be confusing and difficult to interpret. Subjects in any of these studies are bound to have varying degrees of stress, so how is it possible to have a “control” group, that is, one with no stress to compare the rest of the subjects ​to? How is it possible to determine that the cellular effects that are being seen are not caused by other risk factors that the subject may have? For this reason, a direct relationship between the effect of stress and cancer cannot be proven.

Further studies have suggested that stress may be detrimental by affecting signaling pathways implicated in both the progression and spread (metastasis) of cancer.

Stress Management

Knowing that in addition to affecting quality of life, stress may have an impact on your outcome with cancer, stress management is more important than ever for people living with the disease.

Yet it's always nice when you can proverbially kill 2 birds with one stone. Several mind/body techniques have been found to help not only manage stress in cancer patients but benefit those with cancer in other ways as well. For example, yoga for cancer patients, meditations for cancer patients, massage for cancer patients, and qigong for cancer patients may help manage stress while also assisting with some of the other annoying effects ranging from fatigue to chronic pain to chemobrain.

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By Karen Raymaakers
Karen Raymaakers RN, CON(C) is a certified oncology nurse that has worked with leukemia and lymphoma patients for over a decade.