The Biggest Anxiety of All

Amy Hendel Health Guide
  • To me, the "big C" word was always my biggest anxiety.  When I married my husband who is a physician, it's kind of funny, but we both noted - at that time - that no close relative had been diagnosed with or succumbed to cancer in either family. Not parents, siblings, aunts, uncles or first degree cousins.    So we actually felt just a bit "safe' in terms of the "big C" and our health. 


    Once married, his sister was diagnosed with non-Hodgekin's lympohoma, and though she fought a hard battle for 8 years, she finally died at age 52.  Then my mom was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer, commonly associated with long term hormone use, and she barely made it through an awful year of pain and unsuccessful treatments.  And thus the "big C" entered our lives.

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    There's been ongoing disagreement by world authorities on whether or not reducing stress can improve a cancer patient's profile for better outcome, specifically longevity.  The latest study reported in the journal, Cancer, seems to indicate that "psychological counseling - muscle relaxation - stress reduction strategies" in breast cancer patients, can cut their risk of death from the disease by more than half.  The study also seemed to show that psychological interventions reduced the risk that tumors would come back by 45%, and if the tumors did recur, they came later - with an average delay of six months.


    Experts who have looked at this study have warned that "caution still must prevail" when interpreting the impact of this study and its true findings.  Two recent studies that focused on early breast cancer patients found no survival benefit with counseling.   On the other hand, if counseling includes nutrition and exercise recommendations, then it is possible that those changes - saturated and trans fat consumption reduction, eating more plant-based foods, dropping smoking and increasing physical activity might be classified as "stress reduction," but in fact, they are really lifestyle changes that might promote health and better outcome.  On the other hand, true stress reduction might lower cortisol levels as well as catecholamines and glucocorticoids - which over time can indeed tax the immune system.  But again, there haven't been enough T-cell studies to show that the immune system benefits are documentable.


    I will confess that my mother was the kind of person who always seemed to see the cup "half empty instead of half full."  Part of me (the unscientific part) wondered if her "attitude" was somehow involved in her vulnerability to this cancer.  And I certainly worried that her dismal attitude would "muck up" treatments and not allow them to work to their full potential.  That was me then - much younger and certainly emotionally vulnerable since it was, after all, my mom.  I have since seen so many, many stories of hopeful, full of life, cancer victims who ultimately succumb to the disease.  Did they delay death or improve quality of life with their attitude?  Studies still do not conclusively show that. 


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    I will continue believing that mind-body-spirit are indeed connected.  So if there is a way to reduce anxiety or stress associated with any serious, chronic or debilitating disease - I will continue to believe that is has to help....even a smidgeon.  And a smidgeon in the case of "Big C" - is a lot.



Published On: November 20, 2008