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The role of psychosomatics in cancer development

09.01.2020 Author: psiholog pavel horoshutin

“Last month I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. This is probably the worst diagnosis I could ever get. Doctors say that it is not the worst type of cancer, the chances of a full recovery are about 95%, but I’m losing heart. With my bad luck, I will definitely get into 5%. What is the point of enduring chemical therapy and becoming bald? I have an appointment with an oncologist in 30 minutes, but instead I’m staying at home and writing on the forum. I was told that emotional state also plays a role, that you need to believe in recovery, but I just cannot force myself to start treatment”.

– Tamara, 37

Cancer, or a malignant tumor, is one of the most dangerous diseases. Unfortunately, there is no guaranteed cure for it, since the course of the disease largely depends on the type of cancer, its malignancy and characteristics of the body of each person. Therefore, cancer ranks second in terms of mortality after cardiovascular diseases. What role does our psychological attitude play in this process? Can cancer really be caused by “bad thoughts”? And how does psychosomatics affect the healing process? The topic is quite complicated, let’s try to understand it from the point of view of science.

Contents:

What is psychosomatics?

malignant tumor

Psychosomatics is a field in medicine that studies the influence of a psychological state on the occurrence and course of various diseases.

The relationship between psychological and physiological states is well understood and proven. For example, chronic stress can reduce the body’s immunity and resistance to infections. [1] Also, stress, including short-term stress, is one of the causes of tension headache. [2]

But psychosomatics is not the main cause of all, or even most diseases. Yes, there is tension headache, but there is also migraine, which depends on stress to a much lesser extent. There is a decrease in immunity against the background of chronic stress, but there are viruses that enter our body and cause acute respiratory viral infection, regardless of whether we have stress and negative emotions or not.

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The connection between the mental and the physical is more subtle and comprehensive than one may try to imagine.

Intense emotions can cause stress – stress can lower immunity and weaken the body – some kind of disease can occur in the body. What kind and when will depend on the individual predisposition of a person and on the lifestyle, and not on the type of emotion that he/she experiences.

Can psychosomatics cause breast, blood, brain cancer or any other type of tumor?

psychosomatics

In short, no, science does not recognize such a connection. There is no convincing evidence that chronic stress or psychosomatics cause a disease such as cancer. Some studies reveal an extremely weak connection, but other studies do not confirm it. [3]

Internal factors – genetics, age or random mutations – are responsible for only 10-30% of cancers. [4]

The WHO names following main causes of cancer (psychosomatics is not included):

  • related to lifestyle and habits (overeating, being overweight, smoking, drinking alcohol, drugs, lack of physical activity);
  • virus-related (hepatitis, human papillomavirus, immunodeficiency virus, Helicobacter pylori);
  • associated with the influence of environmental factors (ultraviolet, i.e. tanning, various carcinogens such as asbestos, air pollution, passive smoking). [5]

Risk factors for particular cancers

psychosomatics of pain

We analyzed academic publications and did not find any studies or reviews that highlight chronic stress or negative thoughts as a risk factor. International recommendations, for example, recommendations of the WHO or the Ministry of Health of the Russian Federation, also do not name psychosomatics among the causes of oncology.

For example, there are no psychosomatic causes among the risk factors for skin cancer, but instead such factors as tanned skin, fair skin, human papillomavirus and direct effects of carcinogens on the skin. [6]

Risk factors for oral cancer also don’t include psychosomatics. Most common causes are smoking, alcohol and human papillomavirus. [7]

Thyroid cancer – no psychosomatic factors. Main causes are ionizing radiation, heredity, mutations of several genes, hormonal disorders. [8]

The most common type of cancer, lung cancer, is also free from influence by psychosomatic factors. Main reason for it is smoking, including passive smoking. [5] Of course, not all smokers necessarily have cancer. And, unfortunately, those who lead a healthy lifestyle sometimes get sick. Yusuf Hannan, one of the modern cancer researchers, gives the following analogy: “Internal factors are like a gun, in which there is one bullet. All people play Russian roulette with cancer. But smokers add three more bullets to their drum, repeatedly increasing the risks”.

Other types of tumors – cancer of cervix, breast, intestines or rectum, stomach, bones or jaw – are also not influenced by psychosomatic factors.

It’s not our thoughts, but external factors, carcinogens that affect our cells and cause them to mutate.

Psychosomatics of cancer in adults

psychosomatics of diseases

So, stress and our emotions do not cause cancer directly. However, there is still a connection between oncological diseases and psychosomatics. There are 3 main types of connection.

  1. Stress and bad habits

Stress can indirectly trigger cancer. People who experience chronic stress can develop behaviors that increase their risk of cancer. For example, they will try to chase troubling thoughts away with food, smoke or drink to relieve stress. And these reasons can certainly increase the risk of a tumor.

  1. Cancer as a cause of psychological problems

“At first my husband endured everything firmly, he seemed tough. It’s only after, that I realized how bad it really was for him, and he was concealing it, he didn’t want to “burden” us. I think that’s why he broke. The treatment was helping, the tumor reduced in size and doctors from the Blokhin National Medical Research Center of Oncology were hopeful. But suddenly my husband simply stopped fighting. He began to do all [treatment] only half-heartedly, putting it off until tomorrow, and in the end totally refused chemotherapy, said that he could not stand it anymore. And everything went from bad to worse; the tumor grew 10 times, no alternative methods helped”.

– Marina, 45

Oncological diseases almost always cut the ground under one’s feet, and the course of these diseases is often accompanied by anxiety, depressive disorders, sleep disturbances and suicidal risks. [9] People deny their diagnosis, refuse treatment and indulge in destructive behavior. The quality of life decreases significantly, some habits only aggravate the state, for example, the desire to cope with everything on one’s own, inability to ask for help.

About 40% of people who have been cured of cancer report symptoms of depression and increased anxiety. [10] It is important not only to cure the tumor, but also to maintain psychological health, so the support of specialists at the stage of treatment and recovery is vital.

  1. The effect of psychosomatics on recovery

Another important connection is between psychosomatics and the healing process. Anxiety and depressive disorders not only increase subjective suffering, but can also contribute to more rapid progression of the disease and reduce the chances of a full recovery. [11] Reducing stress levels during treatment can have a positive effect on recovery. It is important to understand that a positive attitude in this case is an auxiliary method and not a substitute for the main treatment.

Psychosomatics of cancer in children

cancer disease

Oncological diseases are much less common in children than in adults. About 3 thousand cases in 2017 compared to 617 thousand cases, respectively. [12] The causes of cancer in children have not been studied as good as in adults. One of the main reasons is genetic. Some infections, such as HIV, Epstein-Barr virus (type 4 herpes), and malaria are also risk factors. External factors or lifestyle have little effect. [13] No connection with psychosomatic causes has been identified.

Children suffer from other types of cancer than adults. For example, pancreatic or liver cancer is rare in stark contrast to leukemia, blood cancer – these types of cancer cannot be prevented by psychosomatics or other methods.

“My child had acute lymphoblastic leukemia 10 years ago. It was very hard and scary. But there was another thing just as horrible as leukemia. When my son was diagnosed, I went to a social worker for support and was told that I didn’t really want a child and as a result triggered an extermination program in him. I sobbed for an hour, and she was urging me to confess. But I wanted that child. We planned and prepared to be parents. I tried to get pregnant for 5 years; I think mothers who were waiting for a long time will understand me. This drove me into a deep depression; I spent 2 years soul searching, trying to understand when and why such a thought could slip through. My son has already been cured, they have already dismissed us from the hospital, and I was still wallowing. I decided to go to the therapist only two years later. I was scared to death. But she turned out to be an adequate woman, prescribed me treatment, said that we are not gods and that the whole world does not revolve around our thoughts and desires. And that if it did, than cancer would have hurt a lot more children, including all abandoned kids. I still remember that hell and, honestly, it was easier to deal with leukemia than with that damn guilt”.

– Anastasia, 42

We published Anastasia’s story (with some abbreviations), since it really touched us. This is a vivid example of how unsubstantiated statements can cause serious harm to humans. Fortunately, Anastasia met a good specialist. Please be careful not to take responsibility for something that is not your fault. This can negatively affect both your mental health and the healing process.

How psychology can help treat cancer

psychosomatics in women

As we have already established, the psychological background is important not only for successful treatment, but also for subsequent life. Therefore, in many countries there are entire programs aimed at the psychological adaptation and support of people with cancer. If you or your loved ones did not get into such a program, try to find a good specialist, a psychologist or a psychotherapist who can provide emotional support. There are also self-help methods. It is important to use them only at the same time as the main treatment. For instance:

  1. Good results are shown by music therapy, during which you can sing, play different musical instruments. It is not necessary to do it well; the main goal is to participate in the process instead of just listening. Such exercises lower anxiety, pain, fatigue and reduce frequency of breathing and heart rate. [14]
  2. Physical exercises, for example, yoga, improve the quality of life; reduce manifestations of anxiety, depression and fatigue. [15] Moderate exercise may also be recommended for children. [16]
  3. Normalization of nutrition, daily routine, good sleep and rest. Learning the basics of a healthy lifestyle to some extent reduces fatigue, stress, anxiety and improves the quality of life. [17]
  4. Behavioral therapy includes relaxation exercises, teaches self-regulation, visualization of images for distraction, the formation of positive beliefs. Such a method can reduce nausea and vomiting in people undergoing chemotherapy and will help reduce the subjective perception of pain. [9]

One of such methods is 7Spsy behavior modification technique, a patented method of behavioral psychology based on the theories of I.P. Pavlov, B.F. Skinner, A.A. Ukhtomsky and others.

This course will help reduce stress, relieve anxiety and form positive attitudes. Improving the emotional state, in turn, can positively affect the treatment process.

7Spsy technique is an auxiliary program, and cannot replace medical treatment and consultations with an oncologist. But it can be a good help on the path to recovery.

The course can be taken remotely, at any convenient time and in a convenient place. You can practice daily without wasting time on driving. Our psychologists will support you and answer all questions by phone, in online chat rooms or by e-mail.

We guarantee complete confidentiality and psychological support.

Cancer prevention

causes of psychosomatics

If you fortunately never had to deal with cancer, but are thinking about prevention, we can recommend a 7Spsy behavior modification course to change the habits that increase the risk of cancer. According to the WHO, up to 30-50% of cancers can be prevented by avoiding risk factors and devoting time to prevention. [5]

In this case, the program will be adapted to your needs. For example, if you want to quit smoking or change your eating habits, we will draw up a program based on the desired changes. As a result, you could not only reduce stress, but also reduce the risk of cancer due to lifestyle changes.

Please be attentive to your health, do not cancel treatment without consulting a doctor. Do not prescribe medications yourself. Remember, reducing stress or getting rid of any negative thoughts cannot cure cancer.

Do not self-medicate. All the tips posted on this site (and on all others, too) are advisory in nature and do not replace a full-time visit to a doctor, especially when it comes to oncology. Medical information posted on this site cannot be used for self-treatment and diagnosis. We specifically avoid a detailed description of medications so as not to provoke self-medication.

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Information about possible results of treatment, even if it is supported by examples from medical practice and scientific research, is not a promise that similar results can be achieved in each specific case, and does not guarantee the website user similar results when using the described treatment methods. Remember, you may have a different situation than the persons from our stories. Oncological diseases have an individual course in each case, so be sure to consult a doctor and discuss all treatment methods.

References:

  1. Stress snizhaet immunitet(https://www.apa.org/research/action/immune).
  2. Stress kak odin iz faktorov golovnoi boli napriazheniia (https://www.who.int/ru/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/headache-disorders).
  3. Net sviazi mezhdu stressom i vozniknoveniem raka (https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/feelings/stress-fact-sheet).
  4. Vnutrennie faktory otvechaiut za 10-30% sluchaev raka (https://www.euroonco.ru/science-news/bolshinstvo-sluchaev-raka-svyazany-s-obrazom-zhizni).
  5. Prichiny vozniknoveniia raka (https://www.who.int/ru/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cancer).
  6. Faktory riska raka kozhi (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29332704).
  7. Faktory riska raka polosti rta (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26088938).
  8. Faktory riska raka shchitovidnoi zhelezy (http://www.oncology.ru/association/clinical-guidelines/2018/rak_schitovidnoy_zhelezy_pr2018.pdf).
  9. Psikhiatricheskie soobrazheniia v onkologii (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.3322/caac.21285).
  10. Risk depressii i trevozhnosti posle vyzdorovleniia (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28526007).
  11. Depressiia i stress ukhudshaiut prognozy vyzdorovleniia(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25737493).
  12. Statistika zlokachestvennykh obrazovanii v RF v 2017 godu(http://www.oncology.ru/service/statistics/malignant_tumors/2017.pdf).
  13. Onkologicheskie zabolevaniia u detei (https://www.who.int/ru/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/cancer-in-children).
  14. Muzykalnaia terapiia (https://www.cochrane.org/ru/CD006911/mogut-li-muzykalnye-vmeshatelstva-prinesti-polzu-bolnym-rakom).
  15. Ioga (https://www.cochrane.org/ru/CD010802/yoga-dlya-uluchsheniya-kachestva-zhizni-svyazannogo-so-zdorovem-psihicheskogo-zdorovya-umensheniya).
  16. Fizicheskie uprazhneniia dlia detei (https://www.cochrane.org/ru/CD008796/vmeshatelstva-vklyuchayushchie-obuchenie-fizicheskim-uprazhneniyam-u-detey-i-molodyh-lyudey-vo).
  17. Izmenenie obraza zhizni i povedencheskaia terapiia kak profilaktika raka (https://www.cochrane.org/ru/CD008144/obuchayushchie-meropriyatiya-dlya-borby-s-utomlyaemostyu-vyzvannoy-rakom-u-vzroslyh).