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The Role of Distress in Cancer

Addressing the sixth vital sign of cancer diagnoses.

National Cancer Institute/Unsplash
Source: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

After losing significant loved ones to cancer and observing the impact of grief on people's health (including my own), I decided to go back to graduate school again (third time; you can never learn too much) and delve deeper into health psychology and topics like psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). I am currently working on a Ph.D. dissertation that addresses different healing experiences and various spontaneous remissions. This post stems from some of the information gleaned during my research.

Cancer is pervasive and can be frightening as it is one the leading causes of death worldwide: 2020 saw around 19.3 million new cancer cases and 9.9 cancer-related deaths. For those who don’t know, cancer is not a specific disease but a cluster of over 200 diseases typified by dysfunctional cell growth that is rapidly replicated. The challenge is that the body’s immune system often misses detecting the stealth cell growth and then has difficulty eliminating it. Additionally, cancer stem cells that produce tumors have a sneaky way of taking a rest during cancer treatment and then re-awakening at a later date.

While there are various pathways and adaptations that are involved based on cancer type, progression, treatment(s), age, and gender, there are some epigenetic influences that can be managed. Put another way, some lifestyle habits and ways of viewing life and coping with stress can exacerbate conditions that make cancer cells thrive or remain inactive. One obvious solution is to eliminate smoking, alcohol, drugs, and exposure to toxic chemicals as they create havoc on the body and lead to ripe conditions for multiple diseases, including cancer.

Cancer and Stress

But there’s still more you can do to protect yourself. Distress has been cited as the sixth vital sign in diagnosing cancer, so managing stress can be critical for both cancer prevention and recovery. This makes sense when you understand that stress can increase the pro-inflammatory cytokines that feed cancer while simultaneously disrupting protective immune response. In fact, people with a history of child maltreatment and trauma have been shown to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, fatigue, and stress. Moreover, they also tend to have more internalized shame and cognitive distortions, such as seeing things in more negative ways and ruminating on negativity. Thus, working with someone to overcome the negative perceptions and treat the underlying trauma, anxiety, and depression can be powerful for healing. Meditation, self-compassion, positive self-soothing, realistic appraisal, and employing healthy boundaries can enhance resilience and coping while reducing inflammation.

Nutritional Support

Dietary changes can also help. While it has been cited that sugar feeds cancer and processed foods may introduce unsafe chemicals into the body, there are foods that can be cancer-fighting. Beresford-Kroeger, author of The Sweetness of a Simple Life, provides a broader environmental systemic look at cancer and health and points out that the diversity of the human diet has gone from 85,000 different plant species to approximately eight main versions. She recommends rosemary and reishi mushrooms because they decrease free radicals, while shiitake mushrooms decrease proliferation of cancer cells. Burdock root, onions, and garlic contain alliin—and hanging the onions and garlic in the kitchen allows you to breathe in the alliin, which can help to break down pre-cancerous cells and stimulate the immune system while decreasing blood pressure. Strawberries have ellagic acid which reduces the mutagenicity of toxins entering cells that can lead to cancer. Additionally, keeping a ratio of one omega-3 for every six omega-6’s is recommended.

These are just a few suggestions. Always speak with your doctor to ensure that lifestyle changes you are making are beneficial for your condition and body. The important takeaways are to manage your stress, find support, eat healthy and avoid toxins, get sleep so your body can heal, and try to increase joy and gratitude in your life while decreasing fear and anxiety.

I will close with this quote from Anita Moorjani, the author of Dying to Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing: “I could feel my attachment to the scene receding as I began to realize that everything was perfect and going according to plan in the greater tapestry.”