It’s been a tough month, with one friend after another being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Most of the women are my age. Two out of five have a strong history of cancer, the other three do not. One is a vegetarian and a yogi.
Just last week, I had my own concerns about breasts and cancer when I found myself in the breast clinic of The Medical City (which, by the way, has one of the best breast clinics in Metro Manila in terms of service, equipment and bedside manners). I was waiting for my first-ever (and I’m ashamed to admit this) digital mammogram and breast ultrasound at the lovely age of 48.
My “OB-gyne” had been requesting me to get a baseline mammo (which, really, every woman must have) since age 40, but I disregarded his advice because I had heard so many horror stories about mammograms. The fears were unfounded.
“Hindi naman pala masakit,” were the first words out of my mouth as soon as plastic plates lifted and the technician was done shooting my girls.
Before my mammo, I was in the dark confines of the next room while undergoing a breast ultrasound. Lying there, quite anxious, I thought of all my girlfriends who were on the cancer journey. I’m normally quite brave about exams, but watching the technician make markings and notations, I had various thoughts—and I have one hell of an imagination.
A few minutes later, the doctor came in to do a second “repaso” of my girls. Noticing and possibly feeling my anxiety, she gently told me that everything was all clear and benign. I gripped her arm in gratitude and was so relieved I wanted to cry.
Seven energy centers
That personal experience, and having so many girlfriends now on that journey, made me read up, more than usual, about breast cancer this last week. I always like to look at illness through the lens of traditional medicine and the holistic approach as well.
One of my favorite women’s health authors is Dr. Christiane Northrup, who wrote the best-selling “The Wisdom of Menopause” and “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom,” which I must have read five times, from cover to cover, and a book that I return to now and then when I find myself, or a close girlfriend, grappling with some health issue or other.
She says that a woman’s body is divided into seven energy centers, and the fourth energy center or chakra is where the heart and the breast lie.
“The energy of giving and nurturing others unconditionally draws on all the organs of the fourth chakra, or energy center: the breasts, heart, lungs, upper spine and shoulders. But the love that makes maternal nurturance so life-affirming must be replenished regularly, otherwise it leads to health problems in those same organs.
“When a woman puts her own personal and emotional needs on the back burner—or forgets entirely that she has them—the energy of her fourth chakra inevitably becomes diminished by resentment, anger, grief, longing, pining for contact and pure fatigue. This is the energy pattern that invites breast, shoulder, heart and lung problems. And diseases in those areas cause the majority of deaths and disabilities in women.”
I fully agree with Dr. Northrup, having lived through what she describes, both in matters of the heart and of the breast. This was affirmed when I came across a June 21, article in The Mail online about a very recent study that indicated very strongly how stress and breast cancer are correlated.
Women who suffer stress are said to be twice as likely to develop breast cancer. The question remains: How much stress are we talking about?
The article quoted a 24-year study carried out by doctors from the Sahlgrenska Academy in Gothenburg, Sweden, of almost 1,500 women. The research was presented at the European Cancer Conference in Copenhagen last June 21. It was conducted on a group of healthy women aged 38-60, who were examined by doctors 35 years ago, in 1968 and 1969. The women were also questioned about their stress levels over the previous five years.
The women then had follow-up examinations in 1974, 1980 and 1992. After the final check-ups, doctors compared which women developed breast cancer.
Those who reported stress for a month or more during the five years preceding the start of the study had double the risk.
The study said that other factors which would almost certainly increase the risk of disease were also taken into consideration—smoking, weight, alcohol intake, age of first pregnancy and age at the menopause. Yet the increase in breast cancer risk remained, with stress the only obvious causal factor.
The study’s lead author Dr. Osten Helgesson said: “This study showed a statistically significant, positive relationship between stress and breast cancer.”
Out of 1,350 women with complete data, 456 reported stress, and 24 of them—or 5.26 percent—developed breast cancer. A total of 894 said they had no stress, and 23—or 2.5 percent—developed the disease. Therefore, researchers concluded, the risk of breast cancer was doubled among the stressed women.
However, Dr Helgesson said one weakness in the study was that it did not try to pinpoint exactly how much stress was needed to cause the disease. “I would emphasize that more research needs to be carried out before it can be said that stress definitely increases a woman’s risk,” he cautioned.
That’s enough data for me to recognize how strong the role of stress plays not only in breast cancer but also in other diseases such as diabetes, high cholesterol levels, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
If you look closely at a patient’s history, whether female or male, you will certainly find something there that is related to a deeply stressful event. It has been said that 70 percent of illnesses really find their roots in stress.
Some medical experts have said that, for breast cancer, the link could be due to hormonal changes the body undergoes in times of stress. Breast cancer is largely a disease driven by the hormone estrogen, and it is possible that feelings of stress could cause changes in hormone levels, which then affect healthy cell growth within the breast.
Stress is also thought to lead to changes in the immune system, which could damage the body’s ability to kill off cancerous cells, allowing disease to proliferate.
If that study doesn’t convince you yet, listen to this: another recent study at the University of Chicago found (at least in lab mice) that local chemical signals released by fat cells in the mammary gland appear to provide a crucial link between exposure to unrelenting social stressors early in life, and the subsequent development of breast cancer.
“We found that exposure to the stress of social isolation leads to reprogramming of genes in fat cells in the mammary glands. These fat cells then secrete substances that cause nearby pre-cancerous epithelial cells to proliferate more rapidly, accelerating the development of breast cancer. This local effect of fat cells in the breast was completely unanticipated,” said study author Suzanne Conzen, MD, professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.
Why is breast fat particularly sensitive to the effects of social isolation? Scientists don’t yet understand how this response fits into the larger picture of the detrimental effects of stress on an organism, but “it will be an important avenue to pursue, particularly when so much human disease appears to be negatively impacted by social stressors, diet, and other factors causing metabolic derangement,” Conzen said.
The researchers reported their finding in the July 2013 issue of the journal Cancer Prevention Research.
What do these two studies indicate? One, that though stress is unavoidable, it is very important to manage it, and to find a way to release it constructively, creatively and in a healthy manner.
Second, as indicated by the University of Chicago study, young female children, when subjected to the stress of social isolation, may be at a higher risk of breast cancer later on in life. So young parents, please pay close attention.
As for me, I promised myself I would take better care of my breast health by going to annual digital mammo and ultrasound from here on.
I’ll end by quoting point number 9 of Dr. Northrup’s “Ten Steps to Creating Breast Health,” because it’s one of my favorite tips.
“The body and mind are a seamless unity. And each part of our bodies has its own meaning. The heart, breasts, lungs and shoulder areas are in the fourth emotional center. The health of this area of the body is affected by our ability to express all emotions fully.
“It is also affected by 1) the capacity to form mutual, reciprocal relationships with a balance of giving and receiving; 2) nurturing oneself vs nurturing others; and 3) intimacy with others vs. the capacity to be alone and happy with our own company. Your breast cells—and those of the surrounding organs—are profoundly affected by your ability to create balance in these three key areas of life.”
Dr. Northrup says that, although you cannot legislate caring and compassion, it is very important for women to not be martyrs and to take charge of their emotions and breast health.
I love this quote simply because I am a mother to a daughter myself: “A woman who has the courage to break the martyrdom cycle will be ensuring her own health and helping her daughter or other loved ones do the same. The only way to teach your daughter how to recognize and state her emotional needs is to do so yourself. And when your daughter witnesses this, she will be less likely to carry the mother burden on into her own life.”
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