DEAR DOCTOR K:
I am recovering from breast cancer surgery. Unfortunately, my healing process is coinciding with several unexpected stressful events in my life. Can stress actually slow my healing?
Stress does have far-reaching physical effects. There is plenty of research showing that stress — especially long-term stress, and the feeling that you cannot get control of your life — can harm your body.
It all starts with the body’s stress response. Our bodies are “wired” to respond to acute stressors. For example, our distant ancestors often had to deal with approaching predators. Their bodies had to be prepared to fight or to flee.
Life in the 21st century doesn’t expose most of us to the threat of being eaten by lions. But we do have our own version of such threats, like nearly getting run over by a speeding car.
What we probably have more of today than our ancestors on the Serengeti had is CHRONIC stress — the drip, drip, drip of one challenge after another: The traffic jam. The kid who needs to get to a soccer game when you had planned to go shopping. The boss who asks for something by tomorrow. And how are you going to find the time for that if you have to get your kid to soccer and also shop?
Such chronic stress releases stress hormones that raise your blood pressure and add fat to your body. These two effects of chronic stress, and others, increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. Chronic stress may also suppress your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections. Since the immune system appears to have a role in fighting cancer, chronic stress could theoretically make a person more vulnerable to getting cancer. For the same reason, it could make it harder for a person like you to heal from a cancer she’s been fighting.
A 2005 research study of women undergoing breast cancer treatment concluded that a high stress level before a cancer diagnosis affected health afterward. High stress resulted in a lower physical and emotional quality of life immediately after treatment. The same was true even a year later.
Stress can also have indirect effects on your health. People can respond to stress in unhealthy ways — by overeating, smoking, drinking too much, not exercising enough and engaging in other risky behaviors that can take their toll.
Can stress reduction programs help a patient like you who is recovering from cancer? Studies have come down on both sides of that question. In my experience, patients generally feel they are a great benefit.
You can find a lot more information on ways to improve your healing process in the new book “You Can Heal Yourself: A Guide to Physical and Emotional Recovery After Injury or Illness” by Harvard Medical School’s Julie Silver, M.D.
You can also take steps to reduce your stress by regularly practicing relaxation techniques, which halt the harmful physical processes of stress. Mindfulness meditation, yoga and deep breathing are good places to start.