Cancer & Psychoneuroimmunology

An eye-opening study undertaken by researchers and psychotherapists at Stanford University in the 1980’s demonstrated the impact that our psychological wellbeing can have on cancer survival and longevity.  The study took 86 people with metastatic breast cancer and divided them into two groups: 1 group attended group therapy sessions and were taught self-hypnosis for pain management.  The other group had their usual medical care.  The group that had therapy sessions developed strong social ties to other group members, encouraged one another to be assertive in dealing with physicians and developed a sense of meaning from their situations – using their knowledge and experience to support peers within their therapy groups.  The fascinating development was that those in the therapy groups lived, on average, 18 months longer than those that did not attend group therapy.  There are some disputes about how replicable this study is, yet what I notice is how genuine and caring relationships were formed within the therapy groups and how this level of intimate social support had a profound impact on longevity with a very serious illness.  

This study is very important as it led to many others becoming interested in psychoneuroimmunology – the impact of psychology on the brain and the immune function.  I am sure many reading this will be aware of the impact that stress can have on the human body.  Our stress response system is a marvellous system, or it was at least marvellous when it was used properly.  Historically it has kept us safe.  When we lived on the savannahs as hunter gatherers we would become aware of a predator and our brain would acknowledge the threat and put us into a form of survival mode.  Our brain orchestrates a symphony of responses to keep us alive by releasing an abundance of hormones into the body, mobilising sugars and fats from our cells to fuel our muscles, speeds up the heart to deliver the sugary fatty blood to the legs so we can run as fast as possible.  When we are running for our lives, we don’t need to worry about digestion, or getting sick, so our digestive function and our immune function either switches off, or seriously reduces.  We can also lighten the load by emptying the stomach and bowels rapidly.  

The stress response is wonderful, for physical threats.  For psychological threats, it is not so adaptive.  How is the above useful for concerns about mortgages, deadlines at work, etc?  Quite simply, it isn’t.  It can result in chronic stress where the body is constantly producing the resources to run away, yet not actually needing to and the result is increased risk of heart disease, strokes, cancer, stomach ulcers, and myriad other issues.  

What this teaches us is rather simple in some ways.  A diagnosis like cancer is scary, and stressful; yet, if stress hinders the immune system we’re not helping ourselves by continuing to live in a stressed state.  By dealing with the stress we can maximise our chances of recovery and potentially increase the success of medical interventions.  Having lots of social support, engaging in calming activities like yoga, utilising methods such as hypnosis or self-hypnosis to manage symptoms and improve quality of life can make a difference.