HealthNews from the publishers of the New England Journal of Medicine
The emotionally wrenching experience of a breast cancer diagnosis and the ensuing treatment often create a great deal of stress for women, which may lead to a weakened immune system, new research suggests.
For the study, 115 women who had recently undergone surgery for moderate to advanced breast cancer completed questionnaires about signs of stress such as intrusive thoughts about the disease and attempts to avoid thinking or talking about it. Researchers then tested the women for signs of immune function, including the ability of the body's natural killer (NK) cells to find and kill target cells.
High stress levels did not lower the number of NK cells but did seem to make them less effective, according to research leader Barbara Andersen, MD, a professor of psychology and obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University. The highly stressed women also showed evidence of weakened immune response on two other tests.
Dr. Andersen, who presented the research at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science last month, says the findings are consistent with well-documented research showing ties between stress and immune function in healthy people.
She and colleagues are now studying whether psychological help to reduce stress in breast cancer patients can improve their immune function, which might improve their bodies' ability to fight the disease. Interventions will include teaching women progressive muscle relaxation and encouraging them to accept help from friends and family to do grocery shopping and other chores. Cancer support groups, offered through most hospitals, can also provide an emotional boost, says Dr. Andersen.