Women with advanced breast cancer who have abnormal daytime levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, are significantly more likely to die sooner than patients with normal levels of the hormone, Stanford University researchers reported back in 2000. The researchers also found that women with these abnormal cortisol levels had fewer immune system cells known as natural killer cells, and this reduced immunity was associated with higher mortality. Dr. David Spiegel, MD, Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences said, “We found that patients who had abnormal cortisol patterns died significantly sooner.”
Medicine recognizes that breast cancer patients with a history of traumatic or stressful life events have a two-fold increased risk of recurrence. Patients reporting one or more traumatic or stressful events had a median disease-free interval of 31 months compared with 62 months for patients with no such events, Oxana Palesh, Ph.D., of the University of Rochester, and colleagues reported in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 2007.
“Extended periods of stress and trauma and its resulting cortisol production may interfere with the body’s ability to fight off cancer progression,” said Dr. Palesh. “When there is consistent, long-term stress in the body, the elevated cortisol level may change the body’s normal rhythms and potentially reduce resistance to tumor growth.”