August 28, 2008 / 7:22 PM / 11 years ago

Stress may raise breast cancer risk in young women

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Young women who experience more than one stressful life event are at greater risk of developing breast cancer, but a general feeling of happiness and optimism may help guard against the disease, Israeli researchers report.

The findings shouldn’t be interpreted to mean that optimism is all you need to prevent breast cancer, Dr. Ronit Peled of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beer Sheva, study’s lead author, told Reuters Health. The best way to protect oneself against the disease is still to eat well, be physically active, and follow screening recommendations, she said in an interview.

Peled and her team investigated the role of severe life events, such as losing a parent before age 20, in breast cancer risk. The breast cancer incidence in Israeli women is among the highest in the world, while stress is also a fact of life for people living in the country, Peled noted.

She and her colleagues recruited 255 women between 25 and 45 years old who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and 367 women of the same age who were free from the disease. They asked the women whether they had experienced any severe life events, such as loss of a spouse or a close relative, as well as events considered to be mild or moderately stressful, such as severe illness, job loss, or separation from a spouse. Women also completed a 15-item questionnaire to evaluate their levels of anxiety, depression and happiness and optimism.

Women who had experienced two or more severe or mild-to-moderate life event were 62 percent more likely to have breast cancer, the researchers found. “This suggests that stressful events do not protect us from the effect of additional events, and even ‘moderate or mild events’ seem to have a cumulative effect,” Peled and her team write in the medical journal BMC Cancer.

Women with breast cancer were statistically more likely to have higher scores for depression and lower score for happiness and optimism.

However, they also found that women with a “general feeling of happiness and optimism” had a 25 percent lower risk of having been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The fact that women with breast cancer were asked about their mood pre-diagnosis but surveyed after they had been diagnosed is one limitation to the study, Peled conceded. However, she added, the number of life events a person experiences can be measured objectively.

Based on these findings, she concludes that “women who suffer severe losses in their young age should be considered as a (breast cancer) risk group and be treated accordingly.”

SOURCE: BMC Cancer, August 21, 2008.

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