Excess Stress Helps Breast Cancer Grow and Spread

Stress is not only no fun — who likes an overbearing boss who seems to have the goal of making every day more stressful than the last? — but it also has various health consequences, such as high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attacks, and the like.

To that list you can now add worsening of breast cancer. A new study out of the University of Basel in Switzerland found that stress can fuel the spread of breast cancer tumors, and may also help their diversification.

Breast cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer, with 266,120 new cases occurring in the U.S. last year. It is very treatable when addressed relatively early, but once it metastasizes, it can be quick to diversify. This then creates a hit and miss treatment approach, where therapies need to work on an increasing diversity of tumors. This decreases the treatment efficacy dramatically.

The study

A team from the University of Basel and the University Hospital of Basel in Switzerland conducted the new study. The goal was to expand research into how chronic stress affects cancer cell growth. The study’s findings were announced in a paper in the journal Nature.

The team carried out the research in a mouse model of breast cancer. The team started by studying how different the original tumors were from the metastatic tumors by assessing specific gene activity.


In the Nature paper, the researchers found that in metastatic tumors a type of receptor called “glucocorticoid receptors” were very active. These receptors bind to stress hormones, including cortisol. The team found that mice with metastasized cancer had higher levels of cortisol and another stress hormone, corticosterone, than mice in which the cancer had not spread.

When looking at this relationship, the researchers observed that when stress hormones are present in high amounts, they activate glucocorticoid receptors. This triggers the spread of the cancer cells, and somewhat more ominously, it supports their diversification. Diversification is especially problematic because treatment approaches then also have to become much more diversified.

Interruption of chemotherapy drugs

Another finding was somewhat unexpected. The team found that glucocorticoid receptors also interact with synthetic derivatives of cortisol, which are used as anti-inflammatories to address some of chemotherapy’s side effects. This interaction interferes with some chemotherapeutic agents, neutralizing their effect on the cancer cells. This finding questions whether prescribing glucocorticoid hormones for treatment of chemotherapy side effects could actually be doing more harm to the patient than good.

The study’s author, Professor Mohamed Bentires-Alj, summarized the findings, “These findings highlight the importance of stress management in patients — and especially those with triple-negative breast cancer. Moderate exercise and relaxation techniques have been shown to correlate with enhanced quality of life and greater survival in patients.”

So, while it is difficult to not be completely stressed out by a diagnosis of breast cancer if patients can actively pursue methods to limit that stress it can help their treatment proceed more successfully.

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