Stress, Cancer, and the Immune System

April 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

imagesCAW2MBM5In a very short period of time we have gone a long way from saying, “It’s all in your head.” In truth, nothing stays in your head. All of your thoughts are immediately transformed into hormones that cascade throughout your body.

Stress hormones are designed to shut down the immune system. When faced with an immediate danger, like meeting a bear on a hiking trail, anything going on in your body that is not essential for “fight” or “flight” is downgraded. For example, digestion is halted. The immediate concern is not to supply blood to the stomach muscles for digesting your dinner, but it is to increase blood supply to the muscles in your arms and legs to keep you from being digested.

Your immune system does not need to fight a cold when you are being stared down by a wild animal. Instead, immune cells find a spot to hibernate to keep from obstructing the blood vessels so the maximum amount of blood cells (carrying energy and oxygen) are able to flow to the muscles in the arms and legs. After the danger is past the stress hormones dissipate and the body returns to its normal functions.

However, with chronic stress, caused by the stressful experiences of life, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline continue to seep into your system. Scientific research has conclusively validated that chronic stress causes major health problems such as cancer and heart disease by the continual release of hormones that increase blood pressure and suppress the immune system.

Ultimately, cancer survival depends a great deal upon your attitude and how you participate in your recovery. When you are physically ill, weak, scared, and emotionally hanging on by a thread how can you possibly participate? The answer is that you do what you are able to do. First and foremost you take control of your thoughts!

Victor E Frankel, M.D., PhD was a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor of World War II. As a prisoner, he suffered horrible torture and innumerable indignities under his captors, never knowing from one moment to the next what would be his fate. Dr. Frankel knew his captors could control his entire environment and do what they wanted with his body. Through this he discovered he had the power within himself to determine how his outer circumstances were going to affect his inner self. He said, “everything can be taken from a man or a women but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitudes in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” You may not be able to choose your circumstances, but you can choose your reaction to them. I saw this demonstrated by a cancer survivor (five years cancer free) who, when he was told he had a low percentage rate chance of survival and an expectation of only a few months to live, said: “I chose to ignore that. I’m not a statistical entity. I am an individual. My chance of survival had to be either 0% or 100%. I chose to do everything within my power to make it 100%, and the only one to say the length of my days is God himself, I would leave it up to him.” This is a man who knew inner peace and had a strong will to survive.

Your attitude and the very thoughts you think have a great deal to do with the health of your immune system. Scientific research has conclusively validated the fact that there is a mind/body connection between the brain and the cells of the immune system.

Your thoughts are transferred into chemical signals that affect all of your immune cells. These thoughts can support your immune system or suppress it almost to a standstill. It is clear that the brain “talks” to the immune system throughout the body. In turn the immune cells communicate back to the brain, using chemical messengers.

Your state of mind has a significant effect on your recovery because of this mind/body connection. We know this intuitively and science has confirmed it. Each of us, has within ourselves the ability to keep positive thoughts and attitudes going when faced with a crisis like cancer. Cancer is a harsh reality. It is natural to have fear. Depression is not uncommon. Stress is high. Fear, depression, and stress all suppress the immune system.

When you are “stressed out” it is vitally important that you be aware that in every thinking moment, with every thought, you are telling the cells of your body what to do. Can you imagine a coach coming in at halftime and telling a championship caliber team that it was hopeless and he didn’t see any reason for even playing the second half. You are that coach. Your thoughts are translated into chemical messengers (neuropeptides) that are received by your immune system as you are thinking them. Every negative thought suppresses the immune system. More accurately, negative thoughts cause stress hormones to seep into the body, which slows down the activity of immune cells. These hormones will actually decrease the number of cancer fighting immune cells.

Bottom line:

  • Fear, worry, and depression cause the release of stress hormones that cascade throughout the body.
  • These stress hormones cause the immune system to be severely suppressed.
  • The immune system is your main line of defense against cancer. Specific immune cells have been created to fight and destroy cancer cells.
  • The good news is that you can do a great deal to curb chronic stress and restore the health of the immune system.

Step 1:

Halt negative habits. On a previous post I included a video of Bob Newhart giving advice as a psychologist. He reminded us that when we have a bad habit then “just stop it” and do not try to justify your bad habits – “we just don’t go there.” (Click here if you would like to review the Newhart video). The advice is excellent, but it is only half the story.

Step 2:

The only way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good habit. There are proven ways to do this. I will give you specific suggestions in future posts.

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