Cancer and Stress

The recent public revelations of the recurrence of cancer in  Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow once again bring into focus the issue of cancer and stress.

Several studies question the relationship between the two, attempting to review various measures of ‘stress’ prior to the diagnosis of cancer.  Cancer remains a multifactorial disease process, one that includes genetic susceptibility, external toxic factors, perhaps viral stimulation, immune irregularities and a great deal of what remains unexplained. Yet despite the lack of ‘proof’, my own readings and clinical experience makes me highly suspicious of the association between the two.

Cancer represents a failure of the body’s immune system to adequately combat the malignant threat that arises in all of us. It is believed that cells undergo division and that mutations arise frequently which left unchecked could lead to invasive, metastatic cancer. Fortunately, our immune system usually recognize abnormally dividing cells and sets into motion a process which destroys these cells before they can cause overwhelming devastation.

There is no question that emotional stress impairs the ability of the immune system. This can be assayed by measuring levels of IgA in the saliva of individuals. Multiple other sophisticated process are weakened as well.

I my own practice I have observed that patients whoses cancers were considered in remission, developed full-blown recurrences after periods of intense emotional stress. So it may very well be that the most powerful association between the two is less well defined in the origination of cancer but more obvious in the recurrence, the loss of ‘balance’ between the existence of these cells and their spread throughout the body.

Should individuals such as Edwards and Snow choose to avoid situations in which stress will render their cancers more aggressive? Of course this is a highly personal matter and decision.  At first glance it would seem that they jeopardized their health by assuming such public roles and the obvious powerful public scrutiny.

On the other hand, it may be that such ambitious and personally motivated individuals would face more stress by not pursuing their goals. It may also be their ultimate fate to experience a relapse no matter what path they chose. Stress, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

The lesson for others is to understand the power of stress to affect our sense of balance and equanimity and how this impacts on our ultimate state of being.  To heal is to make whole. Stress, unrecognized and unaddressed tends to impair our sense of wholeness. But it ultimately amounts to how we handle the stresses that affect us all. How we view life’s challenges can motivate us or bring us down.  It is ultimately up to us as individuals how we deal with the inevitable—stress.

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