How to Cut Your Breast Cancer Risk at Any Age: A Decade-by-Decade Guide
Can stressful life events increase your risk of breast cancer?
The relationship between attitude, outlook, mood, and breast cancer is up for debate, but a recent Israeli study of women under the age of 45 found that exposure to several stressful life events, such as the divorce or death of parents before 20 years of age, was associated with breast cancer. “Experiencing more than one [negative] meaningful life event...is a risk factor for breast cancer among young women,” the authors, from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva and Haifa University in Haifa, Israel, wrote. “On the other hand, general feelings of happiness and optimism can play a protective role against the disease.”
Sounds simple enough: Don't worry, be happy, avoid breast cancer. But Ronit Peled, PhD, MPH, the lead author of the study and an epidemiologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, notes that simply being optimistic and having positive feelings are not enough to prevent breast cancer. But happiness and optimism, she adds, along with positive lifestyle factors including diet and exercise, cumulatively contribute to good health.
The findings come with a few more caveats. As a retrospective study, the subjects were interviewed after their breast cancer diagnoses, which means that the disease may have impacted the overall evaluations of their lives retroactively. And some in the medical community are concerned with the message that women may gather from this sort of research.
"Nobody can control these kinds of stresses," says Julia A. Smith, MD, the director of the NYU Cancer Institute's breast cancer screening and prevention program and director of the Lynne Cohen breast cancer preventive care program at NYU in New York City. "And I don't think it's a good idea to present to women evidence that says if they're not happy or if they're stressed out, they might be causing their cancer." What's more, says Dr. Smith, there's evidence that shows the opposite of the Israeli study's findings may be true, that stress may actually be an immune system catalyst that might lower one's risk for the disease. In any event, more research is needed to pin down any links between attitude, mood, stress, and breast cancer before any conclusions are drawn.
Until then, Dr. McTiernan advises women who've experienced stressful life events to do what she'd advise for anyone, regardless of cancer risk: "Seek counseling from a support group, counselor, or clergy to help deal with the event and surrounding stress and grief, which should help with overall health."