Stress and Cancer: Matter of life and death?
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
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).
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
Paul Susic Ph.D. Licensed Psychologist
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.
(1997). Cancer. In A. Watkinís Mind-body medicine : A clinicians guide to
Psychoneuroimmunology. (pp.87-111). New York : Churchill Livingstone.
(1998). Learned optimism : How to change your mind and your life. New York:
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