Newly diagnosed with cancer? Take a deep breath

The very diagnosis of cancer brings about emotional stress in addition to the physical stress caused by surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Patients have noticed that many times their cancer diagnosis was preceded by emotional stress. Stress may not only be a factor in the initiation of cancer but may also determine how cancer patients fight and win their battles against this disease.

In addition to weakening your immune system, stress hormones can directly support tumor growth. In a study published in Nature Medicine, Sood and his team compared tumor growth in groups of ovarian cancer bearing mice that were restrained to cause stress versus mice that were not restrained. Tumors in stressed mice grew faster. The scientists attributed this to the effect of adrenaline or noradrenaline, hormones released during a stressful situation. Blocking their effects by a commonly prescribed drug propranolol (a beta blocker) eliminated the extra tumor growth in stressed mice. Similar results have been reported in animal models of pancreatic cancer.

But how does this translate to human stress?

Some, but not all, observational studies suggest that cancer patients who are on beta blocker drugs to control their high blood pressure seem to survive longer. Physicians will generally not prescribe a beta blocker to fight cancer until the results of randomized, placebo controlled interventional studies validate this approach. Such a study for ovarian cancer is underway at MD Anderson Cancer Center and if you are able to participate in this study, we encourage you to do so.

But what if you don’t have time to wait for the study results?

TAKE A DEEP BREATH

The simple act of taking a deep breath may in fact decrease the release of tumor “fertilizing” stress hormones. The human body is designed to breathe automatically every moment of our lives. Yet, it is the only autonomic function that we can consciously control. The ancient practice of Yoga, meditation and such can also help in controlling the “stress response”. So, any time you feel anxiety, fear or a lack of control, remember to take a deep breath and help your body fight cancer. There are many other ways of controlling stress: pick what appeals to you. Here are a few links to get you started.