Stress and Breast Cancer RiskFirst, the research: A team of researchers studied 225 young women under 45 who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and compared them with a cohort of healthy women in the same age group. They looked at the incidence of breast cancer and found that it was correlated with multiple life stressors. If women experienced one mild, moderate or severe life stressor, there wasn't a significant breast cancer risk, but for women who had faced more than one life-changing negative event (i.e., the loss of a close loved one, a parent's divorce before the age of 20, a job loss, economic crisis or separation for a spouse), the risk of breast cancer increased by more than 50%! The group of women with breast cancer also demonstrated significantly higher scores on depression and lower scores on happiness and optimism, which researchers felt had a causal role.
Stay-Healthy StrategiesThis research has some pretty serious implications. Now, here's what you can do:
- Stress Management
Hone your stress management skills. While you obviously can't control whether you face a major crisis, such as a seriously ill loved one or the divorce of your parents before age 20, you can control how you respond to the resulting stress you face. Having a few stress relievers handy to stop your stress response as it hits can be very helpful in buffering you from the effects of chronic stress. This is because your fight-or-flight response, your body's natural response to stress, creates many changes in your body that are good at helping you respond to imminent threats. This response is bad for your body, though, if your stress response state continues for too long. The following are effective stress relievers for short-term physical relaxation; they're good for buffering your body from the effects of long-term stress.
- Maintain a Balanced Lifestyle
Endeavor to create a lifestyle that includes a manageable level of job stress without too many burnout risk factors, enough free time to live your life and even engage in some ongoing hobbies that you enjoy and a healthy balance of adequate sleep, good nutrition and other healthy habits. If your lifestyle is already stressful and has you stretched to the limit, extra stressors can throw a wrench in to things and have further-reaching implications than they normally would. For example, if your work life is so demanding that being slightly distracted for a short time would result in your losing your job, then dealing with a spouse's unexpected illness can be compounded by a lost job as well. Don't stretch yourself too thin as a regular practice; leave yourself a little slack to deal with unexpected challenges.
- Cultivate a Supportive Circle
Maintaining supportive relationships is also vital, because a supportive network of family and close friends can supply you with practical and emotional support that can help reduce the fallout from a life crisis as they occur. The positive effects of emotional support (a shoulder to cry on, a sense that you're not "alone in this") and practical support (babysitting help with kids, an extra casserole on your doorstep) can bring immense stress relief when you need it. (It's also important to know when to let go of relationships that tear you down; you don't need this when you're already feeling low!)
- Safeguard Your Happiness and Develop an Optimistic Outlook
As the research mentions, happiness and optimism were associated with lower rates of breast cancer — they seem to have a buffering effect. This supplies one more compelling reason to cultivate both in your life! Also, although optimism and happiness tends to be innate, there are things that you can do to develop a more optimistic outlook and promote authentic happiness in your life. Focusing on your thoughts — catching negative thoughts and replacing them with positive thoughts — is one way to develop greater optimism, but there are some more specific and necessary optimism strategies that you can learn. And greater happiness can be developed with a combination of thoughts and actions. (Here are some tips on how to be happy.) Either way, it's well worth the effort to cultivate happiness and optimism in your life as a way to build resilience toward stress as well as stay healthy.
- Take Traditional Preventive Approaches
While this new research offers validation for the importance and effectiveness of cultivating optimism and happiness, and of honing your stress management skills, there are some other well-established strategies you can use to lower your risk. Here are some things you can do (with links to more information from our Breast Cancer site):
- Eat a Healthy Diet
- Exercise Regularly
- Quit Smoking
- Drink Very Little Alcohol
- Have Regular Screenings With Your Doctor
Peled, R. et al. Breast cancer, psychological distress and life events among young women. Child Development, September / October 2008.