The Link Between Chronic Stress & Breast Cancer
One of the most shocking medical developments we have seen in recent years is the number of women being diagnosed with breast cancer. And it’s not just the sheer volume that’s worrying, but also the increasingly younger age of diagnosis.
The National Breast Cancer Foundation, Inc. estimates that over a quarter of a million women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and one in eight women will develop it in their lifetime.¹ Sadly, approximately 3% of them will die as a result. It is the most common cancer diagnosed in women.
The medical community is increasingly recognizing that managing chronic stress plays a crucial role in both preventing and recovering from cancer.
When Is Stress Dangerous?
People typically think of stress as a negative emotion caused by individual events, but did you know that we all actually produce stress hormones 24 hours a day?
Epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) is a potent stress hormone produced in your adrenal glands. It makes your heart beat faster and leads to production of glucose so that your body has sugar to run on when under stress.
As ER docs, Dr. Scott and I used to administer “epi” to patients who were critically ill and dying in hopes that we would jump start their bodies into functioning properly again, or to thwart a life-threatening allergic reaction.
The issue is that we are only meant to make epinephrine under acute stress. Our bodies aren’t made to experience chronic, ongoing exposure to stress hormones.
But the sustained stress of difficult relationships, a tense work environment, or even living during a global pandemic all contribute to the repeated release of epinephrine.
And while people often think of stress as an emotional or mental event, your body responds exactly the same way when you have a serious illness, infection, or toxic exposure. Ongoing experiences with pain, chronic health issues, and exposure to mold or household chemicals also create that same dangerous stress response.
How Stress Affects Cancer
Chronic stress activates part of your nervous system called your “sympathetic nervous system,” and it has been shown to contribute to malignancy.²
Here’s why: In addition to epinephrine, cortisol is one another one of our stress hormones. It is also produced in our adrenal glands, with the highest levels seen in the morning, giving us energy for the day.
Cortisol levels drop at bedtime in order to allow us to fall asleep and recoup. This is called a “normal diurnal pattern.” Chronic stress contributes to adrenal dysfunction and causes abnormalities in this diurnal pattern.
Rather than experiencing natural peaks and valleys in your stress hormone levels, chronic stress means your cortisol remains elevated throughout the day and night. Over time, chronic stress will lead to loss of the normal highs and lows of the cortisol levels. Beyond the obvious issues with sleep and appetite, there are some serious consequences.
Patients with a flatter cortisol pattern have been found to have fewer Natural Killer (NK) immune system cells.³ These NK cells spontaneously kill abnormal cells in their vicinity, including tumor cells and infected cells.
Studies show that a major stressor causes a temporary elevation in NK cells, abruptly followed by a sharp decline in levels. This can have an enormous impact on immune function and risk for disease. In fact, researchers have found that breast cancer patients were more likely to survive longer if they had higher numbers of NK cells in the blood.⁴
So while a recent landmark study found no significant association between psychological stress and developing breast cancer,⁵ psychosocial factors do have a negative impact on survival once diagnosed.⁶
Quite frankly, the stress of hearing the “C” word and being told you may need chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation is itself a major, prolonged stressor. That means a cancer diagnosis alone can have a huge negative impact on a cancer prognosis.
How to Address Your Stress
None of us are immune to stress, but some would say Dr. Scott and I have had more than the norm. In fact, it isn’t uncommon for our family and friends to say, “There’s never a dull moment in the Antoine household.”
It’s true! The number of challenges and stressors we’ve experienced as a family is overwhelming to think about – and quite frankly, to have experienced.
We’ve gone from infertility to having five children in 5 years; a diagnosis of cancer with a poor prognosis; developmental delays and behavioral concerns in our kiddos; a diagnosis of autoimmune disease for me; seizure activity as a result of epilepsy in Scott; and if this wasn’t enough, the devastating and life-changing diagnosis of PANS in our daughter.
These life events have all had a huge impact on our health, and we are convinced we would still be sick (or worse…) if we weren’t intentional about following our pillars to becoming Fully Functional.
One of our favorite books is on the topic of how patients can participate in their own recovery. This is where you PERSONALIZE your care, the 5th pillar of becoming Fully Functional®. The book is called Love, Medicine and Miracles: Lessons Learned about Self-Healing from a Surgeon’s Experience with Exceptional Patients, by Dr. Bernie Seigal.
In addition to taking steps to create a positive mindset and relationships, here are some other natural ways to increase NK cells and support a healthy immune response:
- Studies show massage causes an increase in levels of Natural Killer (NK) cells.⁷
- Eating blueberries regularly has been shown to increase levels.⁸
- Aged garlic supplements have been shown to dramatically increase the number of and activity of NK cells.⁹
- Probiotics enhance NK cell activity and functionality.¹⁰
- Sleep is an important modulator of immune function. Getting 8 hours of sleep per night is crucial for a healthy immune system.¹¹
- Vitamin C has been shown to have cancer fighting properties, particularly in chronically stressed breast cancer patients.¹²
- Meditation improves NK cell production.¹³
Breast Cancer Awareness & Prevention
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but we strongly urge you to take your breast health seriously all year round.
You will be the first person to identify a change in breast anatomy, so you need to know your breasts. We recommend that you do regular self-breast examinations every time you shower or bathe. And please don’t miss your yearly testing and examination with your doctor.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, we would love to partner with you on your journey to becoming your most healthy, productive, and joyful. We will work alongside you and your other physicians and provide adjuncts to care or some alternatives, if that is what you are interested in.
Our extensive training and work experience in the traditional medicine realm, combined with our functional medicine practice, plus our personal experience with cancer and other serious health issues has given us a unique ability to bring hope and healing to our patients.
You can book an appointment by clicking here. We are also happy to speak with you at (317) 989-8463 on Monday-Thursday, from 8AM – 5PM Eastern time.