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Stress Boosts Spread of Cancer

Stress boosts the spread of cancer by making more freeways through which tumour cells escape to other regions of the body, and by increasing the speed at which this happens. The paper is published in the journal Nature Communications.


We’ve been hearing it for all our lives — stress is bad for our health. An increasing body of research has been proving this statement over and over. More recently, chronic stress has been shown to set the stage for a faster and easier propagation of cancer throughout the body. Fortunately, the researchers also found an effective drug that could halt this process.

The study focuses on mice exposed to chronic stress at a level equivalent to prolonged stress in humans, as is the case with someone feeling unable to cope with his situation for an extended amount of time. It was found that those conditions were associated with physical modifications in their lymphatic systems which would ease the spread of cancer in the body. The researchers observed how chronic stress would help tumours escape and spread.

Cancerous growths get particularly dangerous when they are able to travel from their point of origin to other parts of the body to form secondary tumours: when this happens, it becomes much more challenging to treat the disease. This is why medical experts aim at removing the cancer before it can spread. The propagation can occur through blood vessel or through the lymph. How do tumours escape and spread through these outlets? Previous studies show that blood vessel formation might be increased by stress hormones, thereby allowing the tumours to escape. It has not been known how does escape through the lymphatic system happen. Until now.

The new findings show that the higher rate of cancer propagation was the result of an increased rate of lymph formation caused by the activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) triggered by the stress hormone adrenaline. Moreover, the adrenaline would also physically modify lymph vessels, thereby facilitating the movement of cancer cells to other regions of the body at a quicker pace. To sum it up, one of the researchers, Erica Sloan, explains that stress would both create new exits for the tumour and increase the speed limit of this propagation.

Fortunately, the drug found effective in stopping the process is currently being tested on breast cancer patients. It is made up of a beta-blocker known as propranolol which has already been used before. Furthermore, the review of around 1,000 women suffering from breast cancer from Italy supported this evidence as those taking beta-blockers showed less movement of the tumours into the lymph nodes to travel to other organs.

Propranolol is also being used in a pilot study conducted by the same team of researchers. This research involves women with breast cancer, and it hoped that the results will confirm that the findings constitute an easy and inexpensive way to curb cancer spreading.

It is to be noted that Sloan and her team point out how they are not implying for cancer patients to not be stressed since it is “one of the most stressful situations”. Rather, their focus is the way cancer patients are looked after.


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