Severe stress could trigger breast cancer

Israeli researchers have linked early life trauma to breast cancer.

The relationship between attitude, outlook, mood and breast cancer is up for debate, but a recent Israeli study of women under the age of 45 found that exposure to stressful life events (such as the divorce or death of parents before age 20), was associated with breast cancer.

“Experiencing more than one [negative] meaningful life event…is a risk factor for breast cancer among young women,” wrote the authors, who were from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva and Haifa University in Haifa, Israel. They added: “On the other hand, general feelings of happiness and optimism can play a protective role against the disease.”

Sounds simple enough. Don’t worry, be happy, avoid breast cancer.

Dr. Ronit Peled, lead author of the study and an epidemiologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, warns that simply being optimistic and having positive feelings are not enough to prevent breast cancer. However she admits both happiness and optimism, as well as lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise, all contribute to good health.

The Israeli findings come with a few more caveats. As participants in a retrospective study, the subjects were interviewed after their breast cancer diagnoses. Hence, the disease may have impacted the overall evaluations of their lives. And some in the medical community are concerned with the message women may take away from this sort of research.

Dr. Julia A. Smith, Director of the NYU Cancer Institute’s breast cancer screening and prevention program, commented:

Nobody can control these kinds of stresses. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to present to women evidence that says if they’re not happy or if they’re stressed out, they might be causing their cancer.

What’s more, said Dr. Smith, there’s evidence that shows the opposite of the Israeli study’s findings may be true, that stress may actually be an immune system catalyst capable of lowering one’s risk for the disease. More research is needed to pin down any links between attitude, mood, stress, and breast cancer before any final conclusions are drawn.

Until then, women who’ve experienced stressful life events  should do the same as anyone else, regardless of cancer risk: seek counseling from a support group, counselor, or clergy member to help deal with the event and surrounding stress and grief. This in turn should should help with overall health.

Karen Madgwick blogs for Mediterranean Quality Care Services, a nursing agency based in Mallorca. Its team of qualified experts includes nurses, doctors, care assistants, pysiotherapists, holistic therapists and midwives, all of whom offer well-researched information on health-related issues.