It always surprises me when people blame themselves, or their elevated stress levels, when they are diagnosed with breast cancer. My attitude about getting breast cancer at 41 with no family history of the disease, has always been: It’s bad luck, and I’ll never know why, so let’s focus on getting rid of it and keeping it from coming back. Furthermore, blaming yourself for getting a disease seems counterproductive. Doesn’t a cancer diagnosis bring enough problems without faulting yourself?
Still, I read with interest the recent New York Times piece that examines the scientific evidence about stress and cancer. The article concludes that probably there’s no link between the two, although many people continue to believe there is a connection.
Now, I have to admit that I’m somewhat of a stress junkie. For decades I thrived on stress. I picked a career, journalism, that is practically defined by intense deadline pressure and never having enough time. I pride myself on never being late and often rush around like crazy, rather than keep someone waiting for five minutes. I prefer doing things myself, the right way, rather than delegating to someone else, who may have a different – read: wrong -- way to accomplish the same task. But after the whole cancer experience, I decided to de-stress my life as much as possible. Not because I believed that the stress caused my cancer. I had to change, simply because there had to be a better way to live and enjoy my life.
The most extreme step I took was to quit my job as senior editor of a national news magazine, one year after going back to it after sick leave. There had been a change in management while I was out sick and I really didn’t like the new people. Plus, many of my favorite people had already left. Quitting a prestigious, well-paying job for the life of a freelancer, with uncertain pay, is stressful in itself. But I decided it was worth it, and it has been. (Full disclosure: I couldn’t have done it without the cushion of my husband’s well-paying job, his emotional support and his belief that our family could manage on less annual income if I stopped spending so freely.)
Once I gave up my 10-hour-a-day job, I had room to fit other de-stressors into my regular routine. I go to the gym four or five times a week. I have more time to spend with my family and friends. I have more time to read, which always calms me down. All in all, it’s worked out great for me, although I realize that my de-stressing has placed an extra burden on my husband as the nearly sole family breadwinner. He always earned more than me, but now it’s not even close.
So, my bottom line on stress and cancer is this: There’s no scientific research to support that living with lots of stress is going to give you a life-threatening disease. However, cancer or no, if there are ways to change your life so that you can enjoy it more, by all means, do it. Mental health counts, too.