Does stress cause breast cancer?

Lata Jain

Women rising up the success ladder full speed may be more likely to develop breast cancer – and stress at work, including prejudice, discrimination, and resistance, could be to blame.

Women in professional jobs had a near 70 per cent higher risk of breast cancer than other women, according to new research.

A diagnosis of breast cancer threatens more than your health – it can impact your ability to work. You may feel vulnerable to employment discrimination, and fear losing your job because of cancer. Worries pile up – will you lose your income as well as your health insurance? Do you have any legal recourse against discrimination in your workplace?

lata jain

Lata Jain

Women who suffer stress are twice as likely to develop breast cancer, a study suggests. Worries about work and family, which lead to tension, fear, anxiety and sleep disturbance, appear to raise the risk of suffering the disease later in life. The damaging effect of stress is on a par with recently documented dangers of taking HRT – which also doubles the risk of breast cancer. The findings are a blow for a generation of women who face growing levels of stress due to trying to balance work and home lives.

Several studies have implicated stressful life events as a risk factor for breast cancer. Acute stress has been reported to be beneficial for tumor inhibition in humans, primarily through enhancement of the immune response, whereas chronic stress has been associated with a depressed immune response that may promote cancer.

In United States, a group of healthy women aged 38 to 60 were examined by doctors 35 years ago, during 1968 and 1969. They were also questioned about their stress levels over the previous five years.

Women had follow-up examinations during 1974, 1980 and 1992. After the final check-ups, doctors compared which women had suffered more breast cancer. Those who had reported stress for a month or more during the five years preceding the start of the study had double the risk.

Other factors which would almost certainly increase the risk of disease – including smoking, weight, alcohol intake, and age of first pregnancy and age at the menopause – were all taken into account.

Lead author Dr Osten Helgesson said: “This study showed a statistically significant, positive relationship between stress and breast cancer.”Out of 1,350 women for whom there was complete data, 456 reported stress and 24 of them – or 5.26 per cent – developed breast cancer. A total of 894 said they had no stress and 23 – or 2.5 per cent of them – developed the disease.

Therefore, researchers concluded, the risk of breast cancer was doubled among the stressed women.

Delyth Morgan, chief executive of the charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer said: “Further research is needed before any direct association between stress and increased breast cancer risk is confirmed.”

Nearly one-third of breast cancer survivors who were working when they began treatment were unemployed four years later. Women who received chemotherapy were most affected, according to a new study from the University Of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Many doctors believe that even though patients may miss work during treatment, they will ‘bounce back’ in the longer term. The results of this study suggest otherwise. Loss of employment is a possible long-term negative consequence of chemotherapy that may not have been fully appreciated to date,” says lead study author Reshma Jagsi, M.D., D.Phil., associate professor of radiation oncology at the University Of Michigan Medical School

Many patients take time off of work during chemotherapy treatment to deal with the immediate side effects of the therapy. The researchers say it’s possible this may lead to long-term employment problems. In addition, chemotherapy treatments can cause long-term side effects such as neuropathy or cognitive issues, which might also affect job prospects.

The findings point to the need to reduce the burden of breast cancer treatment, and reinforce current efforts to develop better strategies for identifying patients less likely to benefit from chemotherapy.

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