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Links to cancer

Conquest - Summer 2014

Stressing out

By Katrina Burton

Calculating the real cost

What stresses you out?

Are financial challenges getting you down?

Maybe a challenging work environment is causing persistent, nagging headaches. Perhaps relationship trouble is keeping your blood pressure at an all-time high?

We all know that stress is unhealthy. And we now know that chronic stress can shorten a person’s lifespan. It also can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or drinking too much alcohol.

Hans Selye, the Hungarian-born endocrinologist touted as being the first person to recognize the existence of biological stress, once said, “it is not the stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”

Research has shown stress increases the risk of developing chronic diseases such as depression, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

New data adds cancer to that troubling list. These conditions are difficult to treat. They also have an unhealthy effect on your wallet.

The connections between stress and cancer are being discovered by MD Anderson researchers and clinicians. They hope to understand the relationship to determine its implications for prevention, treatment and survivorship.

“There’s not a significant amount of research on the stress and cancer link compared with work linking stress to other conditions such as heart disease. However, there is growing evidence,” says Christopher Fagundes, Ph.D. “In my lab, we’re particularly interested in why certain populations don’t benefit from the same health status as others, and how early-life adversities contribute to a person’s health.”

The dangers of childhood stress

Fagundes, an assistant professor in Health Disparities Research, is charting new territory with his research on stress and cancer. As director of the Behavioral Mechanisms Explaining Disparities lab, Fagundes and his colleagues use psychology, autonomic psychophysiology and psychoneuroimmunology to investigate the body’s response to life stresses and their link to cancer.

“Combining the three methods allows for evaluation of interaction between psychological processes and the nervous and immune systems, while also studying the interface of mind and body and its behaviors,” Fagundes says.

In a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry, Fagundes investigated the impact of early-life stress on basal cell carcinoma. The study showed that people who experience childhood adversity such as abuse, neglect and family problems are at a greater risk for a poor immune response to the tumor.

“This can have a significant impact on a person’s physical health later in life and has been linked to morbidity and mortality from many chronic diseases,” Fagundes says.

Fagundes also is investigating how stress impacts posttreatment symptoms, such as fatigue, pain and sleep, in breast cancer survivors. For example, a study underway examines how stress among married couples impacts inflammatory levels. A key biological mechanism underlying post-treatment cancer symptoms, these levels are associated with cancer recurrence.

The study involves intentionally creating conflict between breast cancer survivors and their partners to measure stress levels. It also tracks how well they manage conflict and resolve their differences.

The effect of other stressors, including the couple’s socioeconomic status, is examined as well.

“While all marriages have stress, that combined with a serious illness such as cancer can negatively impact patients’ quality of life,” Fagundes says.

Betting on beta-blockers

Not overlooking how patients see themselves

More to worry about than cancer

Conquest iPad app

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If you like the layout and experience of the print version, but want the convenience of your tablet, the iPad app is for you.  

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center