COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The stress that many breast cancer patients experience as a result of their diagnosis and treatment may lead to a weakened immune system, a new study suggests.

Researchers at Ohio State University found that patients who reported high levels of personal stress scored lower than less-stressed women on three measures of immune function.

The results were surprisingly strong, and clearly suggested an association between high stress and lower levels of immunity in breast cancer patients, said Barbara Andersen, leader of the research team and professor of psychology and obstetrics and gynecology at Ohio State University.

Andersen, who is also a member of Ohio States Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research and Comprehensive Cancer Center, reported the teams results February 14 in Seattle at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

She conducted the study with Ronald Glaser, professor of

medical microbiology and immunology, and William Farrar, associate professor of surgery, both at Ohio State.

The ongoing study has so far included 115 women with Stage II or Stage III breast cancer being treated at the Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Research Institute at Ohio State or by collaborating physicians in the Columbus area.

The women entered the study after surgical treatment and before they began any additional therapy. The women completed questionnaires that examined signs of stress such as intrusive thoughts about the disease and attempts to avoid thinking or talking about it.

The researchers then tested the women for three signs of immune function. One test was the ability of the bodys natural killer (NK) cells to find and kill target cells.

Natural killer cells have an extremely important function with regard to cancer because they are capable of detecting and killing cancer cells, Andersen said.

We found that high levels of stress did not reduce the number of NK cells, but stress seemed to make the NK cells less effective.

Patients were also tested to see how they reacted to gamma interferon, a protein that stimulates the NK cells to do their job. The third immune system test was to determine how well blood cells replicate in the presence of two plant chemicals -- ConA and PHA. In these two tests as well, highly stressed women showed evidence of weakened immune response.

These results held up even after the researchers took into account other factors that can influence immunity in breast cancer patients, including the patients ages, disease severity and the days since surgery.

Even after you control for these health variables, stress remains a significant predictor of immune function, Andersen said.

The results are consistent with studies by Glaser and others that have found links between stress and immune function in relatively healthy individuals. Were showing that the same relationship between stress and immune function occurs in people with cancer, Andersen said.

The researchers are beginning to look at whether psychological interventions to reduce stress in breast cancer patients can also improve immune function.

Psychological interventions may play an important role, not just in improving quality of life, but also improving the health of breast cancer patients, Andersen said. Thats what were exploring now.


Contact: Barbara Andersen, (614) 292-4236; Andersen.1@osu.edu

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu

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