Israeli professor finds link between stress, cancer

New research from Tel Aviv University in the field of psychoneuroimmunology indicates that stress reduction may make the cancer cells of post-operative patients less likely to take root again.

The new study, led by psychology professor Shamgar Ben-Eliyahu, showed that psychological and physiological stress prior to, during and after surgery has a biological impact that impairs immune system functioning. This impairment influences disease progression, Ben-Eliyahu says, especially at the critical point during cancer surgery when a primary tumor is being removed.

The study was published in 2007 in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. The results are expected to influence cancer intervention programs.

“The psychological stressors of surgery deal a blow to the immune system, but this is hardly discussed in the medical community,” Ben-Eliyahu said. “Ours is among the first studies to show that psychological fear may be no less important than real physiological tissue damage in suppressing immune competence.”

Stress hormones such as adrenaline, which are released before and during surgery, ” underlie much of the devastating effects of surgery on immune competence.” Until now, doctors assumed that the immune system was weakened due to tissue damage and the body’s responses to it. But a weak immune system is one of the major factors that promote cancer metastases after an operation, Ben-Eliyahu said.

“There is a short window of opportunity, about a week after surgery, when the immune system needs to be functioning maximally in order to kill the tiny remaining bits of tumor tissue scattered around the body,” he said.

The main stress hormones that appear to have an impact on immune competence are released before and during surgery, Ben-Eliyahu found. He is currently developing an intervention program, based on existing generic drugs, to block the influence of these hormones.

“By boosting the immune system and blocking its suppression by psychological and physiological stress, starting a day or two before surgery, during surgery and after surgery, we may be able to provide an intervention program that can extend people’s lives and potentially increase their chances for long-term survival,” he said.