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Stress Does Not Speed Breast Cancer Death: Study

Thursday April 19, 2001

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Although severe stress can erode health, women with breast cancer need not fear that stressful events prior to their diagnosis will cut their odds of surviving the disease, new research suggests. Investigators say the findings should reassure women living with breast cancer.

In a study of nearly 700 breast cancer patients, Canadian researchers found that major stressful events in the 5 years before diagnosis had no bearing on women's survival odds. Dr. Elizabeth Maunsell and her colleagues at Universite Laval in Quebec followed the women for 7 years after their cancer diagnosis. Among the one third of patients who died during this time, there was no evidence that stressful life events played a role, the researchers report in the March/April issue of Psychosomatic Medicine.

While the news should be ``reassuring,"" Maunsell's team notes, the study did not look at what effect stress after cancer diagnosis might have. However, they point out, one study that has looked at stress after diagnosis found no negative impact on women's survival.

In the study, the researchers questioned the women on stressful life events--such as the death of a loved one, or a serious illness affecting them or a family member--that they had experienced in the 5 years before they learned they had breast cancer. They then interviewed the women 3 to 6 months after diagnosis about the perceived impact of these stressful events.

It has been suggested that serious stress might promote breast cancer or worsen the course of the disease. And, Maunsell and her colleagues write, many women believe in this possibility. The theory is that chronic stress may give cancer a helping hand by suppressing the immune system. However, according to Maunsell's team, while there is evidence that stress may depress the immune system to a certain degree, the ""magnitude or duration"" may not be enough to elevate the risk of death.

These findings, the researchers write, give the ``strongest evidence to date"" that life stressors before breast cancer diagnosis do not worsen a woman's prognosis.

They conclude that ``we believe our findings of the effects of this kind of stress on survival provide some reassurance for women living with breast cancer.""

SOURCE: Psychosomatic Medicine 2001;63:306-315.

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