Chronic stress has been connected to cancer progression through increased blood vessel formation, but a new study shows that high levels of stress can also impact the lymphatic system, causing tumor cells to spread more quickly.
The research, published in Nature Communications, found that when mice experienced high levels of stress for prolonged periods of time, stress hormones activated the sympathetic nervous system to create new lymphatic freeways. The lymph vessels physically changed to create these freeways, which allowed tumor cells to spread throughout the body at a higher rate.
Scientists have already found a potential remedy in beta-blockers, medications primarily used to reduce blood pressure and manage cardiac arrhythmias. Researchers analyzed 1,000 breast cancer patients in Italy who had used the beta-blocker propranolol and found initial evidence that the drug may limit the spread of tumor cells to the lymph nodes and other organs.
A pilot study is now underway using propranolol in breast cancer patients in Melbourne, Australia.
In the meantime, many resources exist to help cancer patients manage their stress in healthy ways.
“It is important for patients to identify the ways they best relieve their stress and to take advantage of all the resources available,” says Dr. Anna Katz, a breast surgeon at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill. “At Advocate Condell, for instance, we have a Cancer Resource Center offering free yoga, reiki, Tai Chi, counseling services, support groups and more.”
Dr. Katz urges patients to speak to their nurse navigators and let their care providers take care of many of the stresses surrounding the treatment plan.
In addition, Dr. Katz offers these tips for managing stress as a cancer patient:
- Reach out to a support system
- Pay attention to your needs
- Practice good nutrition
- Engage in as many of your typical activities as possible