With extensive research on the link between emotions and cancer, extended psychological stress has been found to affect not only a person’s mental health, but also their overall ability to fight off illness and cancer. The long-understood stress-cancer link has been further solidified by a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation. According to the study, a stress gene known as ATF3 not only works to inhibit your immune system from fighting off cancer, but actually enslaves your healthy cells into helping the cancer spread further into the rest of the body.
ATF3 is activated (or expressed) when the body suffers from stress. This could be either long-term psychological stress or it could be a sudden trauma or stressor. When the ATF3 gene is expressed, healthy, benign cells actually begin to die off. This happens if the stressor causes such severe damage to the body’s cells to which there is no hope of repairing those cells.
Interestingly, carcinogenic (cancerous) cells actually have the ability to hijack the immune cells sent to destroy them. While the immune cells are normally able to remove the carcinogenic cells, the activation of ATF3 around the cancerous cells gives the cancer an “escape route,” forcing the immune cells to help the cancerous cells’ progressive spread. This causes the cancerous cells from the tumor to metastasize to the rest of the body.
The study was conducted at the Ohio State University, with Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry, Tsonwin Hai, as the acting senior author. Professor Hai explained that “cancer cells can’t spread as far if your body doesn’t help them to spread. It’s your body’s cells that cause the spread of the cancer, and stress is one of the things that help the cancer cells to metastasize.”
The first connection between stress and the spread of cancer was found in a study conducted among 300 patients with breast cancer. When the ATF3 gene was expressed in response to stress, the outcomes of the patients worsened. The team followed up by conducted animal studies, and the results were fascinating. Mice that lacked the ATF3 gene had a far less extensive spread of cancer throughout their body (breast cancer spread to the lungs, in this case) than the mice that were able to express ATF3 normally.
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The discovery of this stress gene does more than just give scientists an understanding of how cancer can spread. It may provide a drug target to help fight the metastasis of cancer cells in the future, making it possible for doctors to prevent the spread of cancer by stopping the activation of the ATF3 gene. With so many people suffering from a wide range of cancers, preventing cancer metastasis may help save many lives and greatly reduce the cancer rate in the future.
Although this is great news, there is no reason to wait for a drug to reduce your cancer risk, when you can reduce your risk yourself by actively reducing the stress in your life. Deep breathing, meditation, talking about your feelings, avoiding people who stress you out, getting adequate sleep, eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly will all help you to reduce your stress levels, optimizing your immune system and measurably reducing your risk of cancer.