Who knew that talking about cancer and stress could be so ...stressful?
My background is in journalism, and a good reporter is always looking for controversial topics. So it’s no surprise that I’ve decided to pick out the juicy stuff from my three days in West Palm Beach for the Annie Appleseed Fifth Evidence Based Complementary/Alternative Cancer Therapies conference . I was excited, yet nervous when I was told I would be the moderator for the Breast Cancer Symposium panel. I’ve never moderated a panel before, so I was unprepared for a little conflict that came up in the question and answer session for Susan Silberstein’s talk “Breast Cancer: The Stress Connection.”
Her presentation was quite interesting and highlighted points I had previously read and have posted about. She cited several studies surrounding personality and cancer, citing among other things, the book, The Type C Connection: The Behavioral Links to Cancer and Your Health. Susan highlighted some of the traits of a cancer-prone personality:
- Despair following a significant loss (often 18 months prior to diagnosis)
- Selflessness: inability to take care of own needs but continuously catering to others
- Repression of negative emotions
- Having negative, draining relationships
- Lack of control: feelings of helplessness or hopelessness and perceived inability to change
- Sense of undeservedness
- History of depression
Susan concluded by offering suggestions to rise above these challenges by first being aware of the problem, then incorporating self nurturing activities and finding support. To me, it all seemed to add up. I had in the past identified with all of these characteristics and had very stressful situations leading up to my cancer diagnosis (my father dying and a job from hell). Cancer was a wake-up call for me to transform my life and finally take care of myself. It all seemed like a no-brainer to me, so I wasn’t prepared when the first two audience members who went up to the microphone used it as an opportunity to criticize Susan’s talk.
It was a very emotional and angry reaction. The basic gist was that by presenting the topic in this manner, Susan was blaming cancer patients. It was old data and therefore inaccurate. She should have re-focused it and just shared techniques for coping with stress related to cancer.
I’ve been attacked in a similar way by some members of the cancer community who believe I’m “blaming the victim” when I share the common attributes of cancer survivors I’ve interviewed who beat the odds. And I was shocked then, too.
Luckily several people stood up and supported Susan’s talk. I wrapped up the session by expressing my support of Susan’s points and asking audience members to not look at it as a “blame game,” but as an opportunity to transform their lives.
Sure Susan could have used more current information and back it up by the physical evidence of how the stress hormone cortisol breaks down your immune system. As recently as 2010, an article in Scientific American outlined a study showing how stress hormones, such as adrenaline , can directly support tumor growth and spread. The research team led by Anil Sood from The University of Texas M. D, Anderson Cancer Center “looked at samples from 80 cases of human ovarian cancer grouped according to patient stress using the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression scale as a surrogate marker. Patient stress (according to the scale), along with elevated stress hormone activity were associated with higher levels of activated FAK (a stress hormone), which was in turn linked to faster disease progression.”
But it doesn’t take a scientist to conclude there is a body-mind connection to cancer. In my humble opinion, I need to look deep inside myself to see how I can improve and bring peace to my life. And awareness of the problem is a crucial first step. I believe as I do this, healing will follow. And even if healing in the physical form doesn’t manifest, at least I can live my life more happily and with a deep sense of empowerment.
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