Clearly, being diagnosed with cancer can be one of the most stressful moments in a person’s life. Regardless of whether the tumor is benign or not, the news can cause considerable psychological distress.
In a horrible twist of fate, there is now evidence to suggest that such increased levels of anxiety and stress could actually be affecting how well the treatment to fight the disease works. Research in mouse models has found that lymphoma progressed more quickly when the animals were manipulated to show the physiological responses to stress seen in people.
“When we used immunotherapies on these mice they were not able to respond as effectively as those which had not been stressed,” explained Dr Stephen Mattarollo, coauthor of the study published in Cancer Immunology Research.
“This is because the stress led to poor function against the cancer by T-cells, which are very important in the immune system's control and surveillance of tumors and are a major target in many immunotherapy treatments.”
Interestingly, they reckon that it's not just immunotherapy that might be negatively affected by stress, but chemotherapy too, as well as other treatments that rely on a patient’s own immune system to help tackle cancer. This has led to the development of a new discipline within medical science known as psychoneuroimmunology, which looks at how the mind, the nervous system, and the immune system all work together and interact.
“Absolutely there is now pre-clinical evidence to suggest that treatments and lifestyle interventions to manage or reduce stress levels will improve the chances of these patients responding to therapies,” said Dr Mattarollo.
The researchers are obviously aware that an increase in stress is a natural and totally understandable response to a cancer diagnosis, and suggest that doctors and medical practitioners should now put more emphasis on making sure this is managed in an effective way to create the best possible outcome for their patients.
In addition to trying to reduce patient stress, which could be achieved in a number of ways like helping with home life, easing pressures at work, creating a better hospital environment, or even just through talking, the team is also seeing if immunotherapy can be combined with commonly used blood pressure drugs. It is hoped that these might help block the effect that stress hormones have on the immune system, improving the overall outcome of treatment.