Although it is not fully understood how stress and cancer are related, the relationship has been noted by physicians for centuries. It is now known that stress causes the body to release hormones that activate the fight or flight responses in the body, and increase inflammation. The energy required for these emergency responses is then unavailable for tissue repair or immune system functioning. Chronic stress thus produces conditions in which cancer cells might reproduce and spread more quickly.
Chronic feelings of helplessness have been shown to increase tumour spread in rats, and reduction of psychological stress in women with metastatic breast cancer doubled their average survival time over those in the control group. Psychological stress and helplessness may result from emotional childhood trauma. Treatment for this pain, and kindling the will to live seems to decrease helpless feelings and can mark a turning point in the progression of cancer.
People can reduce psychological stress by becoming more mindful and focusing on the present moment rather than on the past or the future. This is useful both in times of stress and in general life. When stress strikes, focusing on the breath, just by noting it as it comes in and out or by using a technique such as Herbert Benson's Relaxation Response, can produce both a physiological and a psychological state of calmness. Stress reduction through regular use of meditation, the relaxation response or some other relaxation technique can lead to frequent and lasting feelings of calm and even peace. Those who feel stress as tension in their body may want to try a regular practice of yoga, tai chi or qi gong.
Meditation has many advantages in stress reduction and self-healing. It is a way of learning to focus attention inwardly, something many people never do, and observing and connecting with the self. It also helps to see that thoughts come and go easily when there is no engagement with them. With practice and over time it can lead to a deep inner peace that is present even when engaged in the throes of daily life. Because stress is not caused by an event, but by the reaction to the event, decreasing reactivity through meditation leads to stress reduction.
For those with cancer, fear is a stressor that they must come to grips with. There is the fear of an early death, but also fear of being alone and abandoned, fear of pain and suffering, fear of burdening friends and family, fear of abandoning young children, and fear of letting go of the things that are still undone.
The flip side of the fear is that it can lead to a determination to live life well now while there is still time to do so. This puts attention on living rather than on dying, and deciding what living well now means may lead to lives that are more fully aligned with their values. People start to live with more awareness, and may develop a feeling of wellbeing even though they still have cancer. This change in focus to how to live well can also stimulate their natural defenses and lead to prolonged life.
Leading a life of holistic wellness and achieveing wellbeing is possible in those living or dying from cancer. It is not clear whether stress reduction will help prevent cancer, but it can slow, and sometimes halt, the spread of the disease, and contribute to a happier and lomger life.
Anticancer: A New Way of Life by Dr. David Servan-Schreiber
Beyond the Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson
picture by Oddsock