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Stress and Cancer: Matter of life and death?


stress and cancerThe stress and cancer relationship is the continuing focus of an enormous amount of contemporary research. These studies involving the stress and cancer connection have found that the mind has a direct and powerful effect on the body. Studies have found that the actual experience of stress as well as perceptions of control of life circumstances, have strong influences on our general level of well being, as well as potentially effecting our bodies response to major medical illness. Some of the research into the mind and body connection has identified a stress-immune system response in connection with a sense of hopelessness in studying the stress and cancer effect on cancer patients.

Stress and Cancer Research:

Some of the more important research into the connection between stress and cancer has considered the effect of a sense of control over oneís life. One of the studies that has made the most powerful impact upon my thinking in relation to the importance of the sense of hope and control in our lives, and how it ultimately impacts upon our health, was a study conducted by Madelon Visintainer (Seligman, 1998) which considered how a sense of mastery or helplessness may affect the development of cancer.


In her study, she took three groups of rats with one receiving mild escapable shock, another group receiving mild inescapable shock, and the third group receiving no shock at all. "But the day before she did this, she implanted a few cells of sarcoma on each ratís flank. The tumor was of a type that was invariably lethal if it grows and is not rejected by the animals immune defenses. Visintainer had implanted just the right number of sarcoma cells so that, under normal conditions, 50 % of the rats would reject the tumor and live" (Seligman, 1998, p. 170).

With all experimental conditions made identical except for the psychological component, the first group were believed to have a sense of mastery, the second group were conditioned to develop learned helplessness, and the third was psychologically unchanged. The hypothesis was that if there was a difference among these three groups in the ability to reject the tumor, only the psychological state could have been responsible for the difference.

Her results were astonishing. "Within a month, 50 percent of the rats not shocked had died, and the other 50 percent of the no-shock rats had rejected the tumor; this was the normal ratio. As for the rats that mastered shock by pressing a bar to turn it off, 70 percent rejected the tumor. But only 27 percent of the helpless rats, the rats that had experienced uncontrollable shock, rejected the tumor" (Seligman, 1998, p. 170). Madelon Visintainer became the first person to demonstrate in a controlled study, the effect of learned helplessness in the development of cancer. Bollentino (1997) has noted that in both animal and human research, stress in the form of helplessness has been identified to have an immunosuppressive effect. "A variety of immune system processes protect against tumor formation. These include cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTL), B lymphocytes and NK (natural killer) cells. When the cellular and humoral functions of the immune system are depressed or underactive, cancer cells can escape normal surveillance mechanisms and initiate tumor development" (p. 93). The continued growth of tumors requires continuing immune deficiencies. "Depression of immune surveillance can be brought about by a variety of environmental factors including stress, which promotes adrenocorticosteroid production" (p. 93).

Stress and Cancer: Learned Helplessness

The stress and cancer relationship can now be considered from the perspective of learned helplessness. The relationship between helplessness and depression has been well studied (Baron, Cutrona, Hicklin, Russell & Lubaroff, 1990: Seligman, 1998). The association of these phenomena to the suppression of the immune system is likewise becoming more established. "Depression (especially during times of stress) may elevate the release of corticosteroids and catecholamines, substances known to produce immunosuppression. Consistent with this view, depression has been directly associated with impaired immunological functioning in several studies" (Baron et al., 1990, p. 3). The experience of stress manifested as anxiety and/ or depression as well as the resulting effect on immunosuppression may be the most direct expression of the stress and cancer connection.

By Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist


Baron, R.S., Cutrona, C.E., Hicklin, D., Russell, D.W. & Lubaroff, D.M. (1990). Social support and immune function among spouses of cancer patients. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 59, 2, 344-352.

Bollentino, R.C. (1997). Cancer. In A. Watkinís Mind-body medicine : A clinicians guide to Psychoneuroimmunology. (pp.87-111). New York : Churchill Livingstone.

Seligman, M.P. (1998). Learned optimism : How to change your mind and your life. New York: Pocket Books.

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