Cancer’s Link to Emotions?

May 30, 2009

"There will be people who won't believe the sort of thing I'm saying, but we believed in the psychological approach. But it was more than psychology. I meditated twice a day. I calmed myself down. I really became a different person," Epstein says.

“There will be people who won’t believe the sort of thing I’m saying, but we believed in the psychological approach. But it was more than psychology. I meditated twice a day. I calmed myself down. I really became a different person,” Epstein says.

A friend recently told me about her friend’s grandmother who discovered she had cancer several years ago.  Supposedly, after unsuccessful chemotherapy, she went to India to work with yogic teachers, intending to fill a spiritual void that she sensed to be her most fundamental sickness.  She returned several months later with her cancer completely healed.

Professing to the mindbody connection regarding sickness and pain can be seen as logic-ignoring evangelism, especially in the developed, Western world.

My friend’s story is unusual, and questionable, but it echoes similar ones I’ve heard in other places.

In The Body Never Lies, Swiss therapist and writer Alice Miller describes a patient whose resolution of pent-up rage, shame, and humiliation directed toward her abusive father was met by the disappearance of her uterine tumor.  Miller seems completely unsurprised by the correlated vanishing of her patient’s tumor.  The anecdote reminded me of a 1995 article in Vogue about Alice Epstein, a then 57-year-old former high school teacher, happily married and mother of two, who was diagnosed with Stage II metastic kidney cancer.  I’ll tell her story here.

Given less than a 4% chance of surviving beyond two years, Epstein began to research metastasized kidney cancer along with her husband Sy, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts.

They were surprised to discover the extent of the scientific literature that linked psychological factors to the biochemistry of the endocrine and immune systems.

Sy noticed the similarity between Alice and descriptions of what some call the ‘cancer prone’ personality. As he put it in the introduction to Mind, Fantasy and Healing, the book his wife wrote four years later:

“On the surface Alice was cheerful, helpful to others, highly competent, and much loved by people in and out of the family. The only one who did not love her was herself. She could do things for others, but she could not do things for herself, nor could she accept favors from others, nor, apparently, could she even accept the fact that others loved her. Her manifest enthusiasm and cheerfulness masked an underlying depression. It seemed to me that, if in her case personality had played an important role in the etiology of the cancer, then changing her personality could contribute to her recovery.”

When Alice’s cancer spread to two inoperable spots in her lung, she was given three months to live.

She underwent radiation therapy, but in “the meantime,” the article continues, “maybe there was more they could do psychologically. Maybe she couldn’t realistically hope to cure her cancer, but she could find out why she felt so empty and unloved. And maybe that would help. So she went into therapy, and soon forgot she was sick.

‘I didn’t know if therapy would have a physical effect. The outcome I wanted was psychological wholeness,’ she says. The results came quickly, so fast that her therapist, Dorothy Firman, regarded her with awe. She could feel changes in her mental state within three weeks. She felt more powerful, more lovable.”

Epstein points out the lesions on her lung in an X ray taken 24 years ago. They have since disappeared.

Epstein points out the lesions on her lung in an X ray taken 24 years ago. They have since disappeared.

New chest X rays revealed a stunning turn of events. One of the spots on her right lung was significantly smaller. “‘And then,’ Alice wrote later, as my eyes focused on the place [the doctor] was pointing out, I heard Sy and myself saying in unison, ‘But where is the second one?'”

Her second spot had disappeared. 24 years later, today she lives cancer-free in Amherst, Massachusetts.

To let the article conclude, Epstein “believes she owes her life to six weeks of intense psychological work in which she spent hours in meditation and therapy, essentially rebuilding her psychic house from the ground up. She can’t prove that’s what cured her. She can’t show that she wouldn’t have gotten better if she had gone shopping for six weeks instead. She acknowledges that hers is only one case. But ‘I believe in the psychological aspect of cancer,’ she says, sitting in her dining room on a matchless fall day. “It’s not for everybody, but in my case, it was almost classical. The way I was in the world set me up for the cancer.'”

* * *

Cancer kills one in four people in the developed world today, and the World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, this will rise to one in three.

Lifestyle, diet, and genetics play major roles in cancer.  Might emotions as well?

The book Why People Get Sick by Darian Leader and David Corfield offers the following examples of how emotions might impact cancer’s emergence.

To begin, the immune system deploys “natural killer” (NK) cells that perform the immune system’s surveillance of new tumours.  Think of them like our bloodstream’s police force.  NKs’ tumor-killing ability depends on their cytotoxicity, and when we get stressed, NK cells’ cytotoxicity gets reduced.

Medical students about to take exams, alienated young people, and lonely caretakers, for example, have all been found to have poorer-functioning NK cells.

Another critical aspect to cancer emergence is apoptosis – the process by which a cell kills itself once it has become damanged.

A skin cell’s DNA, for example, may be harmed by the sun’s UV rays, which disrupts the cell’s functioning.  The injured cell should fix its DNA, but if it doesn’t succeed soon enough, it is programmed to kill itself.  If apoptosis fails, however, the malfunctioning cell survives and is able to reproduce, eventually forming a tumor.

Studies of medical students during exam period have also proven their cells to be less successful at apoptosis, and animal experiments have shown that methyltransferase, an enzyme which repairs carcinogen damage to DNA in cells, is much lower in stressed animals compared to less stressed controls.

Another experiment took blood from depressed patients and from a control group.  It fired X-rays through the blood, and the depressed subjects’ blood proved less able to repair its cellular DNA.

Some cancers, such as cervical, can derive from viruses.  AIDS patients on immunosuppressant drugs who develop cancer, for example, tend to develop virally-induced ones, thus demonstrating the immune system’s role in preventing cancer formation.

Why People Get Sick Cover

Other cancers develop from scar tissue that never heals.  Wounds that fail to heal create chronic inflammation around them, which damages the DNA of nearby cells and makes them into candidates for potentially failed apoptosis.

Along these lines, an experiment punched holes in the roof of the mouths of a group of dental students, once during a vacation period, and once just before exam time.  Wounds in the same individual took 40% longer to heal at around exam time.

“If this exam-time stress can have such an effect on wound healing,” Leader and Corfield write, “imagine the effects of long-term chronic human misery.  As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate pointed out, some people spend their whole lives as if under the gaze of a powerful and judgmental examiner, whom they must please at all costs.”

Another experiment compared groups of mice that were injected with a virulent virus.  One group were subjected to a cruel series of electric shocks before being injected with the virus.  In 80% of the mice who received no shocks, the immune system normally cleared the sarcoma that resulted from the virus.  However, those that were subjected to electric shocks for three days before the injection had a significantly reduced success rate.

An immune system disturbance at a vital moment, therefore, might have profound effects on the course of a cancer.

The ultimate role of emotions in cancer is far from clear.  The most emotionally healthy-seeming people may develop it, and the most emotionally unhealthy-seeming people may not.

But the link appears to be simple:  emotional health affects the functioning of the immune system, which our body uses to prevent cancers from forming and growing.

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One Response to “Cancer’s Link to Emotions?”

  1. Waow loved reading your article. I added your rss to my reader!!

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