Emotional Stress Linked to Cancer Recurrence

Basal cell carcinoma linked to traumatic childhood and current stress

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Emotional stress and turmoil take a physical toll on our bodies as well. Stress and abuse have been linked to migraines, auto-immune syndromes, heart problems and now skin cancer.

Underlining the body's natural ability to fight cancer, and the toll that stress takes on our health, researchers from Ohio State University found that basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is more likely to return when patients face a major stressful event.

"Ask your doctor about early signs of skin cancer."

The link was established in patients who had reported neglect or mistreatment during childhood, suggesting that current stresses might activate a stronger response that was established previously. The body's immune system starts to shut down with this assault and becomes weaker, less able to protect the body from other insults.

“This is the first study to show that troubled early parental experiences, in combination with a severe life event in the past year, predict local immune responses to a BCC tumor,” wrote Christopher Fagundes, PhD, the paper's first author and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research.

Fagundes added that, “This expands the growing evidence that the consequences of early parental experiences extend well beyond childhood.”

The study included 91 basal cell cancer patients, all of whom were evaluated psychologically during a ten hour session. Fagundes emphasized that he did not talk about child abuse specifically, but general high levels of stress.

Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, one of the study's co-authors, is a psychiatry professor at Ohio State. She feels that the study could help patients catch cancers early if they know they're at risk.  “This means that for people who have had an early history of vulnerability and who are currently going through a stressful period, they have another reason to watch their health and be especially vigilant.”

Researchers also established the strength of the patients' immune system in responding to the tumor by looking at levels of messenger RNA in the tumor for the basal cell cancer markers CD25, CD3, intercellular adhesion molecule 1, and CD68.

Researchers believe the measured levels of these biomarkers from tumor biopsies accurately show when the cancer was progressing or regressing.

The definitive conclusion from the research was that 20 patients with the worst ranked childhood experiences had an immune system that was 350 percent less responsive to the tumor than 20 patients in the study with low levels of stress during childhood.

The research was published in the June edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Support for this work came from Ohio State University, the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 14, 2012
Last Updated:
June 16, 2012