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Stress will not bring back breast cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

13 June 2002

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Violence, bereavement, debt and other stressful experiences do not increase the chances of breast cancer returning in a woman who has been treated for the disease.

The good news was announced today in a new study by Europe’s largest cancer charity, Cancer Research UK, and published in the British Medical Journal1.

The study, headed by Professor Amanda Ramirez at Cancer Research UK’s London Psychosocial Group, looked at more than 200 women with operable breast cancer and followed their progress over five years.

Despite the women suffering from a range of severely stressful problems such as domestic violence, children involved in crime or financial difficulties which resulted in losing their home, researchers found that stress was not a risk factor in the recurrence of breast cancer.

Early research into whether severe emotional stress could influence the course and development of cancer has produced conflicting findings. But this study concluded that stressful life experiences do not increase the likelihood of a woman’s breast cancer recurring over a five-year period.

Ramirez, who is Professor of Liaison Psychiatry at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, says: “The findings should come as a great relief to women with breast cancer. For many years women have believed that experiencing stress in life might cause their cancer to return and that avoiding undue stress is paramount.

“Our research means we can confidently reassure women that experiencing difficulties in life will not affect their chances of suffering a recurrence of their cancer.”

The study also found that developing depression does not appear to increase the risk of breast cancer recurring. The diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer can often trigger a depression but these are not associated with future relapse.

Women in the study were all under 60 and newly diagnosed with a primary operable breast tumour. Data on their lives was collected for up to five years after diagnosis or to a recurrence of breast cancer.

Of the 202 women interviewed 76 per cent did not suffer a relapse over the five-year period. In the remaining 24 per cent who did suffer a relapse, stress was not found to be a risk factor. Instead important risk factors for recurrence related to the type of tumour and whether the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of Cancer Research UK, said: “This news should come as a real relief to women already bearing the burden of breast cancer. Now they need no longer fear that life’s inevitable stresses and strains – which are often increased by coping with cancer – will affect the chances of the disease returning.”


  1. British Medical Journal