• Psychological stress alone has not been found to cause cancer, but psychological stress that lasts a long time may affect a person’s overall health and ability to cope with cancer.
  • People who are better able to cope with stress have a better quality of life while they are being treated for cancer, but they do not necessarily live longer.

...Nonetheless, some medical experts say therein lies the link between cancer and stress — if stress decreases the body’s ability to fight disease, it loses the ability to kill cancer cells.

Every day, our bodies are exposed to cancer-causing agents in the air, food and water we’re exposed to. Typically, our immune system recognizes those abnormal cells and kills them before they produce a tumor. There are three important things that can happen to prevent cancer from developing — the immune system can prevent the agents from invading in the first place, DNA can repair the abnormal cells or killer T-cells can kill off cancer cells.

Research has shown that stress can lower the body’s ability to do each of those things, according to Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., assistant professor of behavioral sciences at the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Does that mean there’s a direct link between stress and the risk of developing cancer?

                                                       Stress could be unifying theme in cancer spread

Previous studies have shown that stress is a risk factor of cancer, and for example, that psychological stress is linked to breast cancer aggressiveness.

And researchers already know that ATF3 is activated when all types of cells experience stressful conditions that threaten their ability to maintain a constant internal environment (homeostasis).

Under normal circumstances, triggering ATF3 protects the body from harm by causing normal cells to commit suicide if there is a risk they have become permanently damaged by the stressful conditions (eg lack of oxygen or irradiation).

When cancer cells first arise, the immune system recognizes them as foreign agents and enlists immune cells to attack them. In the early stages of cancer development this works. But then things go wrong: one reason is cancer cells start to send signals to immune cells that cause them to misbehave in a way that helps the tumor grow.

In the new study, researchers at Ohio State University show that cancer cells are able to switch on ATF3 in immune cells that have been summoned to tumor sites. The result is ATF3 then causes the immune cells to malfunction and allow cancer cells to escape from the tumor and spread to other parts of the body.

Senior author Tsonwin Hai, a professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at Ohio, says:

"If your body does not help cancer cells, they cannot spread as far. So really, the rest of the cells in the body help cancer cells to move, to set up shop at distant sites. And one of the unifying themes here is stress."

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