During the Second World War, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist was interned at a prison camp. While he was a prisoner, he learned how to judge if a man was going to die in the next 24 hours… by whether he was smoking cigarettes.
The doctor, whose name was Victor Frankel, explained that it had nothing to do with the carcinogens found in the cigarettes; rather, it was because they were valued as the prison camp’s main currency. By smoking them instead of trading them for things they needed in the camp, they showed they had given up on hope. That’s what killed them within a day.
This is exactly why Dr. Francisco Contreras, an oncologist, surgeon, and president of the Oasis of Hope Hospital is so concerned about what oncologists are telling their patients about cancer. He knows that there is a clear connection between a person’s perspective, and their quality (and duration) of life! Without hope, he believes there can’t be victory against cancer.
The Scientific Proof
So, what really happens to a person’s body when they no longer hold out hope over their diagnosis? There is plenty of scientific research that explores the physical repercussions of having the opposite of hope: distress.
The National Cancer Institute states that “Distress has become increasingly recognized as a factor that can reduce the quality of life of cancer patients. There is even some evidence that extreme distress is associated with poorer clinical outcomes”. There are actually a great number of human and mouse studies that indicate this very thing.
What is Stress?
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First, it’s helpful to understand what is meant by distress and stress in the context of cancer. When the body is stressed, either emotionally or physically, your brain commands the release of stress hormones. These act to increase blood pressure, accelerate heart rate, and raise blood sugar, which is helpful to get you through a challenging short period of time. Stress is not meant to be a chronic state.
The Dangers of Stress and Cancer
Unfortunately, the reality is that most people diagnosed with cancer are also battling the stress that accompanies their treatment journey. Research shows that dealing with that stress poorly can lead to a reduced quality of life after cancer; whereas people who can deal with stress effectively have lower risk of depression and anxiety, as well as fewer negative symptoms coming from the cancer treatment itself.
Additionally, scientists have found a link between cancer tumor growth and stress. The more stress a person experiences, the more cancer is likely to spread. One study in particular measured tumor growth in mice. The mouse subjects that were exposed to inescapable stress had tumors that developed earlier, were bigger, and led to a lower chance of survival than their non-stressed counterparts.
Another study found that the cell level immune system response is compromised by chronic stress. The result is that you are less able to fight against cancer cells. Similarly, another group of researchers found that chronic stress reduces our Natural Killer cells, which work to oppose unwanted cancer cells. In short, stress makes cancer cells stronger, and our own cells weaker.
What about false hope?
Many people claim that it is better to be told that they’re at the end of their life, than to be given a sense of “false hope” that comes to nothing. But Dr. Francisco Contreras adamantly believes that there is only hope… neither false nor true. Hope itself is what makes the difference between life and death.
There is also the matter of quality of life. He points out that there is a difference between being tumor free and being cancer free. There are many people who no longer have cancerous tumor, but who live in constant fear of relapse. Whereas, other patients live happily despite not being cured of cancer yet. This is what Dr. Contreras calls true victory over cancer.
So, What Can You Do?
Fortunately, there are things you can do that are proven to help you cope with killer stress, and choose to live in hope instead.
- Find support from family, friends, and cancer groups
- Try meditation as a relaxation method
- Get personal counseling
- Exercise when you feel well enough to
- Focus on treating depression and anxiety
- Check out these other great stress busters here and here!
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