Why treating stress could help beat cancer

The stress of being told you have breast cancer may be reducing the potency of drugs used to treat the disease, according to new research by the University of Brighton.

Early trials show stress-relieving medications may increase the efficacy of chemotherapy and by doing so, improve recovery. Managing stress and anxiety at an early stage, researchers say, could become routine.

Dr Melanie Flint

Dr Melanie Flint, Reader in Cancer Biology at the University of Brighton’s School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, has been studying the impact stress hormones have on patients, and the effect chronic psychological stress has on disease progression, as well as response to drug treatment. Dr Flint said: “Stress hormones are highly potent and can interact with almost every cell in the body including normal, cancer and immune cells.”

Her research has shown that DNA can be damaged as a result of the interaction between our cells and stress hormones, leading to cell transformation: “A diagnosis of breast cancer is a cause of a great deal of stress, which in itself, is a significant reason for stress management to be considered early on.”

Melanie is part of a team of scientists at the University of Brighton researching breast cancer. Dr Flint collaborates with Professor Dame Lesley Fallowfield, Professor of Psycho-Oncology, who will be speaking at the British Science Festival on the 5 September, in an event titled, ‘Risk and uncertainty in breast cancer treatment’.

Dr Val Jenkins, who works with Professor Dame Lesley Fallowfield said: “Combining the expertise of laboratory-based scientists with that of psycho-oncologists in an innovative area of research is likely to produce tangible benefits for patients receiving cancer treatments.”

Dr Flint works with women who have recovered from triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), accounting for roughly 20% of all breast cancers. She has found the period of most stress is different for each woman:

“Patients experience stress for a variety of reasons: through knowledge that they are high risk, enduring multiple biopsies, indirect stress of family members, as well as fear of pain, sickness and potential end of life. Some patients seek stress interventions such as exercise and positive reinforcement from medically-trained individuals.”

Each of the women Dr Flint worked with stated that stress was a major factor during their cancer history, and that they felt stress could play a role even in tumour progression and treatment.

Dr Flint said: “Determining the effects of stress on the efficacy of chemotherapy will have an impact on the potential utility of pharmacological interventions such as beta-blockers, or psychological interventions including mindfulness-based stress reduction, and on the correct time point for administration in the disease trajectory for greatest therapeutic effect.

“The research will impact patients and clinicians, through recognition that stress is a contributing factor for drug resistance in the treatment of breast cancer.”