Wednesday, September 20, 2017 by Isabelle Z.
Getting diagnosed with cancer is a highly stressful time in a person’s life. Even if their outcome is ultimately a favorable one, it’s often a long journey full of ups and downs. The stress and uncertainty are often highest in the beginning, when the extent of the illness is still being uncovered and the patient is coming to terms with the realities of the situation by breaking the news to family and friends and trying to decide the best course of treatment.
Unfortunately, this very natural reaction can work against cancer patients as studies show that stress hormones shield growing tumors from getting treated by cancer drugs. In an effort to learn more about how stress affects the body when a person undergoes cancer treatment, researchers from England’s University of Brighton looked at a chemotherapy drug that is commonly used to treat patients with breast cancer and how it reacted to stress hormones.
They found that when breast cancer cells were exposed to stress hormones like norepinephrine and cortisol, they generated free radicals, which essentially protected the tumors from the effects of the chemotherapy agent paclitaxel.
Moreover, they found that stressed mice who had breast cancer generated higher levels of nitric oxide-generating enzyme (iNOS) in tumors. Higher iNOS activity is connected to more aggressive breast cancer.
For this reason, experts say that stress reduction therapy is critical for all cancer patients. Being diagnosed is stressful under any circumstance, but if it makes treatment less effective, it’s even more vital to keep stress at bay.
The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Melanie Flint, said: “What I would like to see is that every patient diagnosed with cancer has their stress recognized and their options talked through, and an offer of stress reduction.”
The good news is that studies have found several means of stress reduction to be effective in cancer patients that do not involve dosing the body with even more drugs. One of these is yoga. This combination of breath and movement can be highly beneficial to cancer patients, who can not only experience a reduction in stress, fear and anxiety, but also gain some relief from pain and improvements in flexibility and strength. Even low-key poses can make a difference.
A 2011 study found that yoga improved the overall quality of life for patients undergoing breast cancer radiation therapy, and one of the benefits was a reduction in their levels of cortisol, which we now know prevents chemotherapy drugs from working.
Another study found that mindfulness-based art therapy reduced stress levels in breast cancer patients. In that study, patients first took courses about awareness of emotion and breathing, followed by art activities that were designed to allow them to express their emotions meaningfully. Those who underwent this therapy had lower scores on anxiety tests than the control group, and they also had lower levels of stress.
Meditation can also be a valuable approach for cancer patients. A Canadian study made waves in 2014 after finding that support groups that use meditation and yoga can change cancer survivors’ cellular activity in positive ways. Another study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, discovered that breast cancer survivors who used mindfulness techniques had higher levels of well-being and calm, slept better, and experienced lower amounts of physical pain.