Janet always feared cancer. Over the years, she performed all kinds of anti-cancer rituals—taking vitamin D supplements, wearing sunscreen, eating broccoli—almost as if bargaining with God while trying to keep fear at bay. But it wasn’t just cancer she feared. After being pushed down a flight of stairs when she was a year old by her toddler brother, she had never felt safe in the world. She was afraid of illness, pain, anything that might cause cancer, anything toxic, unlocked doors and windows, intruders, and a host of other unnamed potential dangers.
She feared doing things wrong and the shame and embarrassment that accompany imperfection. On her first-grade report card, her teacher had written, “Janet will one day find that it’s a waste of time to worry so much about making a mistake.”
Janet’s fear manifested as chronic tension in her body, a sort of habitual clenching, particularly in her stomach and pelvic region, as if she could ward off fear and control her world that way. She once had the thought, If I ever have health problems, they will stem from my stomach and pelvis.
Sure enough, that was where she got sick. It started with a ruptured, necrotic appendix. Then one day, years after menopause, she started bleeding vaginally. Deep down, she knew the sleeping beast she had been tiptoeing around her whole life had finally awakened.
Just prior to her diagnosis of uterine cancer, she had gotten married to the love of her life. Although she was thrilled about getting married, her wedding generated great anxiety, as her perfectionist tendencies emerged, along with her fears that she might now lose the man she loved. The fear voice in her head had a constant mantra—Be careful.
Janet strongly suspected that fear had weakened her immune system and allowed her uterine cancer to take hold in her body, but that realization didn’t stop the fear from getting worse. She had always feared doctors, needles, hospitals, and pain, and those things were now a regular part of her life. So it didn’t surprise her when, a year after aggressive treatment, her cancer recurred. It made sense to Janet that when an area of the body is chronically tense, we block the flow of energy, oxygen, and circulation to that part of the body, leaving it vulnerable to illness. Janet suspected that her cancer would win if she couldn’t learn to deal with her fear.
Because she already intuited that fear could be her friend, she turned FEAR into an acronym—“Feel Everything And Recover.” Her cancer journey required her to fully face her worst fears, one breath at a time, one trembling foot in front of the other. She now finds that she is no longer clenched with fear; instead, she is embracing it, becoming fully present with it, and learning from it. And she is now cancer-free.
A Study Evaluates The Correlation Between Cancer and Stress
Janet believes fear caused her cancer, and her courage is helping her heal. But is there any data to support a link between fear, anxiety, and cancer?
While investigating this question while writing my new book, The Fear Cure, I went back to the medical journals, where I found a Norwegian study conducted through the University of Bergen. This study followed 62,591 people from one county of Norway who took part in a medical survey between 1995 and 1997, a survey originally used to develop the Norway National CancerREGISTRY, which listed participants who had developed cancers or premalignancies that might one day become cancers.
The Amygdala Can’t Tell The Difference Between Stress and Fear
Those involved in the study also underwent psychological testing to determine if they were anxious—and researchers found that the most anxious people surveyed were 25 percent more likely to have abnormal cells that might become cancer.1
There’s less data specifically looking at fear and anxiety, but the medical literature is loaded with studies evaluating “stress” and cancer—and as we’ve already determined, the amygdala can’t tell the difference between stress and fear. Whether it’s work stress, stress from the loss of a loved one, the stress of a divorce, the stress of an empty nest, the stress of feeling lonely, financial stress, the stress of inadequate self-care, the stress of a health diagnosis, or the stress of being chased by a cave bear, the primal brain interprets it all as “THREAT!” And the stress response is triggered.
Because so many patients diagnosed with breast cancer are convinced that stress caused their cancer, researchers have studied this link in particular, looking for correlations between cancer and life stressors. A case-control study from Finland, published in
Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, examined the lives of 87 breast cancer patients and concluded that they had endured significantly more stressful life events, losses, and difficult life situations in the six years prior to the onset of disease than had population controls. The study found a survival advantage for those breast cancer patients whose lives were less stressful before diagnosis. The study was small, however, limiting the ability to make sweeping generalizations.2
A larger Polish case-control study, published in Cancer Detection and Prevention, interviewed 257 breast cancer patients who underwent surgery between 1993 and 1998 and compared them to 565 cancer-free controls. This study found that the breast cancer patients who experienced significantly stressful life events were 3.7 times more likely to develop breast cancer than those who didn’t.3
An even larger study seems to confirm this correlation. Published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, it investigated the relationship between stressful life events and risk of breast cancer among 10,808 women from the Finnish Twin Cohort and found that those who experienced stressful life events in the 5 years before the initial assessment were more likely to develop breast cancer over the 15 years during which they were followed, especially if the stressors included the death of a spouse, close relative, or friend. There was also an association between breast cancer risk and divorce or marital separation.4.
What Stress Does To The Body
Not everyone in the scientific community is in agreement on whether stress predisposes people to cancer. Some data supports this hypothesis, while other data refutes it. Polly Newcomb, Ph.D., the head of the cancer prevention PROGRAM at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, set out to definitively answer this question. Using trained interviewers to question women with cancer, as well as healthy women who served as controls, about the stress in their lives that preceded a cancer diagnosis, Newcomb asked nearly 1,000 study participants about stressful life events.
Had they lost a loved one? Gotten married or divorced? Lost a job or retired? Gone bankrupt? The results were clear. There was no association between self-reported stressful events in the previous five years and a diagnosis of breast cancer.5
But critics didn’t buy it. They argued that Newcomb’s study measured stressors, but not stress itself. Newcomb conceded that they had a point. She had made the understandable assumption that stressful life events equaled the physiological experience of stress—the fight-or-flight stress response. She’d used the assessment of stressful life events as a surrogate for what might have been happening in the body, but she hadn’t actually measured what was happening in the body.
We might logically assume that if a person experiences a life stressor, this leads to more fear and more stress responses and might predispose him or her to cancer. But individuals deal with stress very differently. When you let fear become your teacher, allowing it to illuminate anything in need of healing in your life, stressful life events may even relax the nervous system because on some deep level, you know you’re growing. Studies make it hard to control for this kind of adaptive response. Perhaps one person remains physiologically calm—with the body dominated by relaxation responses—in the face of a horrific life stressor, while another freaks out and gets flooded with stress responses as the result of an event others might deem stress-free.
After all, it’s not easy to measure the physiological experience of stress when assessing stressors that happened before a patient enrolled in a study. Unless you enroll cancer-free patients in clinical trials ahead of time, hook them up to CONTINUOUS monitoring, and follow them around over extended periods of time to see whether they develop cancer, it’s hard to gather clean data that allows you to make blanket statements such as “Life stressors cause cancer.”
What we can conclude, however, is that the actual experience of stress can indeed put you at risk of disease, although perhaps the way you experience stressful life events determines your body’s physiological response even more than the stressful life event itself. Perhaps if you let fear help you heal emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, stressful life events need not predispose you to health problems. Maybe, instead of leading to a breakdown, stressful life events can break you open, and your health can even improve. Such variables are difficult to test in research settings, which may explain why the data is mixed with regard to fear and cancer. To learn more, see my book, The Fear Cure, and tune in to my public television special premiering February 28, 2015.