Saturday 4 May 2019

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Stress and Breast Cancer Risk

Stress and Breast Cancer Risk

Our discussion this week focused on stress and whether we believe it has had an impact on our breast cancer, both in the original diagnosis and in ongoing incidents of recurrence or metastasis. In line with mixed evidential research, our experiences varied.

For some, a general observation that our current busy stressful lifestyles may contribute to a cancer diagnosis is convincing.  Stress may lead to a lowering of the immune system, an eat-on-the-run poor diet, little time to exercise and poor sleep. Severe stress may lead to generalised anxiety or other psychological disorders. We know that not looking after ourselves physically affects our state of mind and our wellbeing suffers when we are overwhelmed and under pressure. 

But if stress causes breast cancer then everyone who is stressed would get it wouldn’t they? They don’t. 

However, Naz told us that recent research is increasingly convincing in showing that higher levels of stress are predictive of an enhanced risk of getting breast cancer - reminding us that “risk” is not the same thing as “cause.”

We pondered over the specific stressful events that may have contributed to overall poor health - the loss of a loved one, losing a job, financial pressure, not coping at work, problems with children - the list is endless and varied. Some of us were asked about stress by our medical teams, which alerted us to question whether there could be some link. Many of us are convinced that our own personal stress was a contributing factor in their breast cancer diagnosis. A few don't believe there is any link. 

A cancer diagnosis in itself is a stressful event, and may lead to prolonged stress during treatment and beyond.  Relationship problems are common, as is financial hardship. Many of us reported feeling more stressed in general than before our diagnosis, due to the mental and physical challenges we face. A number of us reported that our diagnosis came after a period of high stress, once the stress was behind us.  A diagnosis after retirement or redundancy from a stressful job is not uncommon.

Many of us have looked back on our lifestyles pre-cancer to see what might have ‘caused’ it - this helps us to make sense of what’s happened, and although we know that it’s nonsense to blame ourselves, we do seek the answer to ‘what did I do to deserve this?’ At the end of the day no one cause is proven.  It makes common sense to take care of ourselves and looking after our own wellbeing becomes paramount for many of us. Minimising stress may be one of the choices we can make, but for many it may not be possible to keep stress levels low as life throws all sorts of stressful events at us over which we have no control.  How we react and deal with these events is within our control to a certain extent, and this is where self-care comes in. One example might be in returning to work following our treatment: it is possible to adopt a new approach, to set boundaries and decide to put ourselves first rather than allowing our work to overwhelm us.  The problem is, it’s really difficult to do. 

Some of us have attended courses on dealing with stress and these can be very helpful.  Exercise, getting enough sleep, eating well, mindfulness, yoga and meditation can all facilitate wellbeing, and it’s when we are very stressed and all our usual self-care routines go out the window that we need these the most.  When we are stressed we feel out of control, and sometimes small acts that allow us to feel more in control can really help, perhaps a ten minute walk or three minutes of deep breathing. Finding ways to minimise our stress can help us to feel that we are doing our best to prevent a recurrence or spread of a primary diagnosis, and to stay stable and prevent progression of a secondary diagnosis.  

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group please send us a private message via Facebook.

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