Breast cancer study shows link to stress

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The most clear-cut evidence yet that stress can cause cancer has come from a study of more than 100 women from the breast cancer clinic and screening unit at King's College Hospital, London.

When the women were questioned about their past life before the diagnosis was made, it was found that almost half of those who proved to have the disease had undergone one or more "adverse life events" in the previous five years.

Among those who proved disease-free, however, less than one-fifth had suffered similarly. Severe events, among other things, were defined as including bereavement, being made redundant or bankrupt, becoming homeless, being mugged or having a son or daughter arrested.

The findings suggest that a link between life stress and cancer may indeed exist, the team from the Institute of Psychiatry and King's College Hospital conclude in this week's British Medical Journal.

Hormonal responses to stress may affect the body's immune system, the study team speculates, and this increases the chances of cancer developing. It appears, however, not only that there is little that individuals can do about it, but also that those who cope aggressively with such events, rather than giving in to them or simply moving on to the next thing in life, may actually be at higher risk of the disease.

"The downbeat message is that many of these events are not really happenings that you have any control over," Dr Tony David, a reader in psychological medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry, said yesterday. "They just happen to you, and you just have to hope that they don't."

But there was also an irony in the finding that those who confronted their stress might actually be at higher risk of disease.

"There may be a trade-off here between psychological and physical health," Dr David said. "Coping positively with these things is good for your psychological health - you wouldn't want to advise people not to do so because they would become depressed. But there may be a physical risk in confronting them aggressively."