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Breast Cancer and PTSD, Trauma, and Stress

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Updated November 07, 2008

Breast Cancer and PTSD, Trauma, and Stress
(c) 2007 iStockphoto.com/Skip O'Donnell

Some studies have found a connection between breast cancer and PTSD. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among women (when skin cancers are not considered). In 2007, it was estimated that 178,480 new cases of invasive breast cancer would be diagnosed, and approximately 40,460 people would die from breast cancer.

Given the frequency with which it occurs, a tremendous amount of research has focused on identifying risk factors for breast cancer. One such risk factor that may increase risk for breast cancer or influence its progression is the experience of stressful and/or traumatic life events.

The Effect of Stress

It has known for some time now that the experience of prolonged and constant stress can have a negative effect on a person's health. When someone experiences stress, a hormone is released by the human body called cortisol. This hormone helps us respond to stressful life events; however, it also can suppress the immune system.

When a person experiences a severe stressful life event, the body's resistence to cancer may be lessened. In fact, one study conducted in animals found that increased cortisol levels due to stress was linked with the faster growth of tumors.

Stressful Life Events and Breast Cancer

Studies in humans have found similar results. The experience of major stressful life events has been connected with an elevated risk for breast cancer, as well as a faster progression of breast cancer among women already with a breast cancer diagnosis.

For example, one study looked at a large group of women who had gone to a doctor after finding a lump in their breast. Women who had experienced more severe stressful life events were more likely to have a malignancy.

Another study examined the role of traumatic and/or stressful life events in the length of time between the intial diagnosis of breast cancer and its recurrence or metastasis. This period of time was shorter for women who had experienced traumatic and/or stressful life events, suggesting that the experience of severe stress may speed up the progression of breast cancer.

Reducing Your Risk

Although we are not at the point yet where breast cancer can be completely prevented, there are a number of things that you can do to prevent your risk for breast cancer. Pam Stephan, About.com Guide to Breast Cancer, provides a number of important ways you can reduce your risk for breast cancer.

Further, although we are still learning about how stress can impact the development and progression of breast cancer, learning how to better manage stress may be an important step in the right direction. The experience of stressful life events is usually out of our control; however, we do have control over how we respond to those events. There are a number of healthy ways of coping with stress that may reduce your risk. In addition, if you have experienced a traumatic event, it may be helpful to talk with a therapist or seek out a support group. There are a number of resources available for people who have experienced a traumatic event looking for help. You can also learn more about the relationship between stress and cancer from the National Cancer Institute.

Sources:
American Cancer Society. Breast Cancer Facts and Figures, 2007-2008. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society, Inc.

Geyer, S. (1991). Life events prior to manifestation of breast cancer: a limited prospective study covering eight years before diagnosis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 35, 355–363.

Lillberg, K., Verkasalo, P.K, Kaprio, J., Teppo, L., Helenius, H., & Koskenvuo, M. (2003). Stressful life events and risk of breast cancer in 10,808 women: A cohort study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 157, 415–423.

McEwen, B.S. (1998). Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators. New England Journal of Medicine, 338, 171–179.

Palesh, O., Butler, L.D., Koopman, C., Giese-Davis, J., Carlson, R., & Spiegel, D. (2007). Stress history and breast cancer recurrence. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 63, 233-239.

Riley, V. (1981). Psychoneuroendocrine influences on immunocompetence and neoplasia. Science, 212, pp. 1100–1109.

Sapolsky, R.M., & Donnelly, T.M. (1985). Vulnerability to stress-induced tumor growth increases with age in rats: Role of glucocorticoids. Endocrinology, 117, 662–666.

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