Breast cancer patients who learn to use stress-reduction techniques in recovery not only live healthier lives, but they also experience genetic changes that may boost their immune systems and and block the growth of tumors, new research has found.
University of Miami researchers, writing in the journal Biological Psychiatry, said their work is the first to show stress management can alter genetic processes that promote cancer growth at the molecular level and may increase a patient’s survival odds.
For the study, researchers tracked nearly 80 breast cancer patients. Some of the women participated in a 10-week program developed at UM -- combining relaxation, imagery, deep breathing and cognitive behavior therapy – to help them reduce tension and stress. Some did not.
After 12 months, researchers identified genetic changes in the immune systems of women who underwent the stress-reduction program “that may facilitate better recovery during treatment for breast cancer,” said Michael H. Antoni, the UM study’s lead researcher. Researchers were able to identify specific genetic changes in the women who learned to manage their stress “that signal the production of molecules associated with a healthy immune response,” Antoni said. “At the same time, the genes responsible for the production of substances involved in cancer progression…were down-regulated."
He added that breast cancer diagnosis and treatment can produce a great deal of stress for patients. “If stress affects the immune system in a negative way, then their recovery could be slowed down and those patients taking longer to recover may be at risk for poorer health outcomes,” he noted. “Conversely, if stress management intervention can reduce the impact of stress on the immune system then recovery may be hastened."
The research team plans to follow the women in the study to see if those who practice stress-management techniques stay healthier or have fewer reoccurrences of cancer.