Research published in the journal Nature Communications suggests a mechanism by which stress can facilitate the spread of cancer.
The study, carried out on mice, reveals that stress can cause ‘highways’ to develop which allow the faster spread of tumours throughout the body. The researchers, from Monash University in Melbourne, say the results were observed in the lymphatic system, which transports white blood cells to the heart.
The researchers used an advanced multiphoton fluorescence microscope to track cancer cells and their progress between lymph nodes. They found that increased levels of stress expanded the lymphatic system’s ability to transport cancerous cells.
This research adds weight to the theory that cancer patients’ symptoms can get worse if they experience high levels of stress.
Dr Caroline Le, who undertook the work, said: ‘We found that chronic stress signals the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — better known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response — to profoundly impact lymphatic function and the spread of cancer cells.
‘These findings demonstrate an instrumental role for stress in controlling lymphatic function to impact health, and suggest that blocking the effects of stress to prevent cancer spread through lymphatic routes may provide a way to improve outcomes for patients with cancer.’
It has long been recognised in observational studies and anecdotal data that cancer patients can appear to struggle more with their illness when significantly stressed. This research now suggests that stress may potentially hasten cancer spread through the lymphatic system.
Clinical trials are now needed to see if stress directly affects cancer patients. If found to correlate with this study they will provide a potentially exciting step forward in cancer management in the coming years. At present, however, this remains a theory.
Research score: 3/5