Study Finds Link Between Stress and Breast Cancer

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago are linking stress and breast cancer after a recent assessment of more than 900 women.

The 989 women were surveyed three months post diagnosis, assessing their stress levels in the areas of fear, anxiety and isolation. All are forms of psychosocial stress, which is connected to breast cancer. Psychosocial stressors increase the aggressiveness at which tumors progress.

"We found that after diagnosis, black and Hispanic breast cancer patients reported higher levels of stress than whites, and that stress was associated with tumor aggressiveness,” said Garth Rauscher, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, University of Illinois at Chicago, at a conference on the findings.

Of the study’s 989 breast cancer patients, 411 were non-Hispanic black, 397 were non-Hispanic white, and 181 were Hispanic.

However, Rauscher admitted, "If we had asked the same question a year or five years before diagnosis, would we have seen the same association between stress and breast cancer aggressiveness?"

"It's not clear what's driving this association,” he said. “It may be that the level of stress in these patients' lives influenced tumor aggressiveness. It may be that being diagnosed with a more aggressive tumor, with a more worrisome diagnosis and more stressful treatments, influenced reports of stress."

Eighteen percent of women with the most stress were more likely to be diagnosed with more aggressive, high-grade tumors. However, when age and cancer stage were accounted for, the link disappeared.

The research team acknowledged this disparity. However, in the interest of the study, the researchers said they felt it was safe to assume the patients who were stressed when they were interviewed would also have been more stressed before they knew they were sick.

The findings were presented at the Fourth American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Conference on The Science of Cancer Health Disparities on Monday in Washington, D.C.

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