Breakthrough research into stress & cancer growth

We've just returned from visiting our home town in New Zealand for the past 2 weeks and we've both come back sick. I actually thought I would have more down-time there but it was literally non-stop so I didn't get a second to post last week. But it was really lovely being home around so many supportive and understanding people.

I was catching up with a friend and we were talking about me getting sick as it was the first time many had seen me since my diagnoses, she said to me ..."we were thinking, god, if you got sick then there's no hope for us!" referring to my healthy ways. Which got me thinking, she is right if she was talking about the person I was 3 years ago when we lived in Gisborne (a small city on the east coast of New Zealand). Because when we lived there I was really healthy because I love the way it makes my body feel. I love exercise, I was getting outside in the sunshine daily, work was 8-5pm, I took no work stress home, the commute was literally 5 minutes in the car no traffic or public transport to deal with, balance was so much more achievable then.

When I look back on it, I guess my interest in health stemmed from being sick as a teenager with glandular fever on and off for years, then a really unhealthy lifestyle at university. I know once I graduated all I wanted to do was sleep. Many nights at uni were spent AT uni, in the form of "all-nighters", sugar and energy drinks would get me through. I can't even imagine how unhealthy I was with all the stress, sugar, alcohol and lack of vegetables and quality sleep. My uni friend and I would joke about how much we'd aged during our degree because we knew it wasn't at all healthy. Please, if your a university student eat a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and plenty of water and get plenty of sleep - it will make you a better student.

Once I was done with my degree my focus turned to my body, I was suddenly really conscious of what I was putting into my body and how it would be affected after years of neglect. Soon after that an osteopath told me to try giving up dairy because he could feel how inflamed my digestion was and it was playing havoc on my skin and energy levels. So I guess that's where it all started, and I could feel how much better my body felt from it, I had more energy plus my skin was clearer and I was sleeping better.

But the truth is I wasn't very healthy when I got sick and I was extremely stressed. 


Stress: "a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances"


Definitely the situation I was in after starting a new job, which also contributed to exhaustion, bad eating and a lack of exercise. All definitely brought on by me wanting to succeed and make a good impression, but that's just the person I am and in hindsight I probably wouldn't have changed a thing.

However recently I found some interesting research into cancer growth and its relationship with stress. And it made me wonder - if this is what stress does to cancer growth then what is it doing to people with MS? ... it's common knowledge that stress can precede an MS attack and it's something we as PwMS really have to be conscious of and manage well.

Researchers have discovered chronic stress causes cancer to spread in a large percentage of mice who are put under chronic prolonged stress. Whereas mice who are not put under stress, their cancer didn't spread. An extract from the article...

"Australian researchers have revealed in a study that could dramatically change the way people with the disease are treated.

For years patients have suspected that high levels of stress may cause cancer and or accelerate it's growth, but neither hypothesis has been proven by rigorous research showing how this might occur.

A team of researchers from Monash University have now shown that chronic, persistent stress in mice sets off physiological changes that cause cancer cells to move faster and spread to other parts of the body.

The team, led by Dr Erica Sloan and Dr Caroline Le, discovered that adrenaline - a neurotransmitter triggered by stress to increase alertness and rapid reaction to threat - has a downside for animals and people with cancer: it increases the number and size of lymphatic vessels in and around tumors, while also increasing the rate of fluid flow through these vessels. Both of these combine to increase the capacity of lymphatic "highways" to carry and spread tumor cells throughout the body.


"We found that chronic stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) - better known as the fight or flight response - to profoundly impact lymphatic function and the spread of cancer cells"

- Dr Le on the study published in the prestigious journal Nature


These findings demonstrate an instrumental role for stress ... and suggest that blocking the effects of stress to prevent cancer spread through lymphatic routes may provide a way to improve outcomes for patients with cancer."

The study also reported that a cohort of patients on drugs often used to treat anxiety and high blood pressure (beta blockers that block the actions of adrenaline) were less likely to have secondary cancer that had spread from its primary site.

A clinical trial is now underway at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre to see if such a drug alters the course of breast cancer in people with the disease.

Dr Sloan said the mice in the study were restrained in a way to make them feel like they would not cope with their circumstances. This was done to mimic the way people feel if they are under significant stress brought on by caring for a sick relative without enough resources, for example. She said it was not designed to mimic an acute and temporary episode of stress such as being chased by a dog.

"What we're talking about is prolonged, ongoing situations where you can't cope," she said.

The mice who were stressed had a much higher rate of their cancer spreading, compared to control mice with cancer who were not put in stressful situations.

Stressed mice experienced more metastasis (cancer spreading from its original site) compared to otherwise healthy (control) mice. Source Le et al., Nature Communications.

Dr Sloan emphasised that cancer patients should not feel responsible for their own stress because it can be very difficult to control, especially when diagnosed with a serious illness. However, she is hoping the research will lead to new ways of treating cancer in a more holistic way that reduces stress as much as possible along the way. This could be done with drugs like beta blockers, as well as complementary therapies such as meditation or yoga."

This research is hailed as a "breakthrough", I certainly think it's pretty incredible that we finally have a study backing the impact of stress on cancer. Hopefully this leads to studies into other illnesses and their relationship with stress. Sometimes I feel stress isn't taken seriously enough in terms of its affect on the body and the mind. A lot of people with an MS diagnosis can identify stress in the lead up to the diagnosis and around symptom flares. Stress management and meditation are both a big part of the OMS program.

In the meantime, because stress can be unavoidable, I've been thinking about how we can try to prevent it and it's effects on the body. By thinking of the opposite of a stressed state as relaxed, calm and peaceful. And how can we achieve this more often so that stress doesn't change our physiology.

My number 1 suggestion, in terms of my experience would be MEDITATION. All you need is 20-30 minutes alone, put some headphones on and listen to a guided meditation. Do it daily and its cumulative effects are fantastic, I wish i'd started it earlier.

Followed closely by YOGA with its emphasis on deep breathing which indicates to the central nervous system that your not in danger and is therefore calming, PROPER NUTRITION/BALANCED DIET in terms of making sure you have all the nutrients you need, no blood sugar spikes or excess caffeine, EXERCISE for strength and endorphins then LAUGHTER, STAYING SOCIALLY CONNECTED and LOVING MORE. I always seem to see this thread, it always comes back to a common theme - just getting back to basics and maintaining more balance in life.

I also found this fantastic article by Ben Greenfeild that he put together on The 7 Best Stress-Fighting Weapons That Will Make Your Mind-Body Connection 100% Bulletproof. Although the beginning is about "Over training" if you scroll down you'll get to the crux of the article where he talks about strategies to counterbalance stress. He goes into a lot of depth on the topic and the reasons behind why things like mindfulness mediation, yoga, sleep, tai chi and breathing techniques are so beneficial.