Stress may play a role in how the immune system responds to cancer
patients who feel high levels of stress concerning their diagnosis and treatment show evidence of a weakened immune system compared to patients experiencing less stress, a new preliminary study shows.
Researchers found that the highly stressed women had lower levels of natural killer cells than women who reported less stress. Natural killer cells are one vital weapon making up the immune system.
"Natural killer cells have an extremely important function with regard to cancer because they are capable of detecting and killing cancer cells," said Barbara Andersen, leader of the research team and professor of psychology and obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University.
"These results, although preliminary, suggest that psychological stress may play a role in how the immune system responds to cancer."
Andersen presented the results August 13 in New York at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.
These results are the initial findings of an ongoing study that will examine the relationship between stress, immunity and breast cancer. The study will involve more than 200 women with breast cancer who are being treated at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Research Institute at Ohio State or by collaborating physicians in the Columbus area.
The women entered the study within one to two weeks of surgical treatment and before they began any additional therapy. The women completed questionnaires that examined signs of stress such as intrusive thoughts about the disease and attempts to avoid thinking or talking about it.
The results are consistent with other studies that have found links between stress and immune function in relatively healthy individuals. "We're showing that the same relationship between stress and immune function occurs in people with cancer," Andersen said.
Researchers want to examine whether psychological interventions can reduce stress in these cancer patients, improve immune function, and possibly even extend patient survival.
"It's clear from previous research that psychological interventions can improve the quality of life for cancer patients," she said. "The question is whether such interventions can have biological or health consequences."
Some of the interventions that will be tested in the patients include progressive muscle relaxation, training in problem solving, and use of social support. Patients will also get information about healthy diets, exercise and disease treatments and learn assertive communication skills for dealing with health care providers.
Andersen said the stability of many cancer mortality rates makes it important to find innovative treatments to improve the quality of life of cancer patients. Psychological techniques can play a role.
"Psychological interventions might not only have important roles in reducing stress and improving quality of life, but also in extending survival. We need to examine this possibility more closely," she said.
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