It’s hard to divorce a mesothelioma diagnosis from stress. There are few times in life more stressful than the moment you find out that you have a rare and terminal cancer. A mesothelioma diagnosis adds many unknowns to your future. The only thing that’s certain is that your life won’t be the same.
Feeling stressed at the time of your mesothelioma diagnosis is a natural reaction. As time goes on your worries, both financial and health-related, may grow. New research has shown that chronic stress can increase the chances that cancer will spread or metastasize. Since metastatic or secondary tumors are usually deadlier than the original cancers, preventing the spread of your mesothelioma cancer is an important factor that may increase your life expectancy.
Mesothelioma Diagnosis Adds to Stress
Most of us have developed coping mechanisms to deal with the stresses of daily life: someone cutting us off on the freeway, an unruly teenager, a demanding boss. A mesothelioma diagnosis brings a whole new set of stressors that we are not yet prepared to handle.
Facing a cancer diagnosis is a shock to you and to your family and friends. Suddenly, end of life decisions need to be made. Your expectations and plans for the future may need to be modified or changed completely. You may have to give up travel and modify your daily routine to account for your new and more limited abilities. Much of your time may be taken up with doctor’s visits, receiving mesothelioma treatments, and recovering from those treatments.
On top of this, mesothelioma can bring a great deal of financial stress. You may have to retire earlier than you had planned. Your spouse may give up her job to care for you. Even if you are already retired when you get your mesothelioma diagnosis, the added costs of medical co-pays and travel to receive care can strain your budget.
You are not alone. Any type of cancer diagnosis can be stressful. Recent studies showing the link between chronic or ongoing stress and the spread of cancer cells highlight the importance of managing that stress – and some possible options for future treatments.
Chronic Stress and Mesothelioma Spread
In a 2016 study from the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Australia, scientists found that chronic stress in mice caused their bodies to create pathways between cancer cells and the lymphatic system. Your lymphatic system circulates a fluid called lymph throughout your body. The lymph carries away toxins and waste products and also serves as a conduit for white blood cells, which are an important part of your immune system.
Your lymphatic system is also vital to your adaptive immune response. Your adaptive immune system learns to recognize and defend against new invaders. This is why people who have been exposed to a strain of the flu will have immunity the next time it comes around: their adaptive immune systems have learned to recognize that type of flu and fight it off.
The 2016 study, “Chronic stress in mice remodels lymph vasculature to promote tumour cell dissemination,” published in Nature Communications, found that stress in mice caused the lymphatic system to build new pathways around cancerous tumors. This dovetails with the findings of a 2015 study by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that cancer cells can get into the lymphatic system by camouflaging themselves to look like white blood cells.
The lymph nodes are often the first place that mesothelioma tumors and other cancers spread. Once cancer cells get into the lymph system, they can travel to other parts of the body and form metastatic tumors or settle in the lymph nodes. These metastases are much harder to treat than the original tumors. One of the main goals of mesothelioma treatments is to block the cancer from metastasizing.
Possible Role for Beta Blockers to Inhibit Metastasis
When you experience chronic stress, your sympathetic nervous system keeps its fight-or-flight mode active for too long. Humans evolved this stress response to help us react quickly to immediate threats, such as a charging rhino or a bus that’s about to hit us. In this heightened mode, we are able to move fast to avoid danger and stay alive. Researchers have long known that too much time spent in the fight-or-flight state is harmful to our bodies.
The 2016 Australian study shows a mechanism by which this type of stress makes cancer more lethal. They found that treating the stressed mice with beta-blockers prevented the pathways between the cancerous tumors and the lymph system from being created.
Beta-blocker drugs are commonly used to treat people with heart conditions. They block the body’s stress response. It’s possible that beta blockers could help patients with a mesothelioma diagnosis live longer, if they slow or prevent the spread of cancer cells to other parts of your body.
Managing Stress After Your Mesothelioma Diagnosis
After a mesothelioma diagnosis, you may not even realize how much of your time you spend in the high-stress, fight-or-flight mode. Chronic stress and worry can become your new normal.
Beta-blocker drugs are not the only solution. There are a number of techniques you can use to shrink your stress. So take a deep breath, let it out slowly – and read on.
A 2013 study published in PLoS One by Bhasin, et al., showed that activities that evoked a relaxation response, including meditation, yoga, and repetitive prayer, reduced “stress-related pathways” in the body. A Greek study from 2011 looked at a variety of techniques for relaxing and came to the same conclusion: slowing down and calming the mind has concrete physical benefits.
Resources for Relaxation, Slowing Down, Calming the Mind
Relaxation techniques, a critical component to wellness, identified in the Greek study can include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: According to the Mayo Clinic: “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a common type of talk therapy (psychotherapy). CBT helps you become aware of inaccurate or negative thinking so you can view challenging situations more clearly and respond to them in a more effective way.” In addition to the internationally respected Mayo Clinic program, another resource is org Cognitive Behavioral Therapy training.
- Biofeedback: Medical News Today defines Biofeedback Therapy as “a non-drug treatment in which patients learn to control bodily processes that are normally involuntary, such as muscle tension, blood pressure, or heart rate.” Biofeedback therapy is offered at some of the leading institutions in the country. One of the very best is the biofeedback services offered at the University of California San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.
- Deep Breathing Exercises: The use of diaphragmatic breathing (deep breathing) is commonly practiced to improve a variety of factors such as pulmonary function, cardiorespiratory fitness, respiratory muscle length, and respiratory muscle strength. Rich resources for this type of therapy include the American Institute of Stress (stress.org) and the Lung Institute (lunginstitute.com) which outlines steps and training.
- Types of Meditation: Meditation covers a wide variety of practices, including mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, guided meditation, and more. When you are ready to explore your interests, there are countless resources for all of the types of meditation available to practice. Your meditation can be spiritual or nonreligious. Remember that any kind of meditation practice that you are able to do regularly will have health benefits after your mesothelioma diagnosis.
If the thought of sitting still and meditating makes you squirm, there are many other ways to get to a relaxation response. You might go on a walking meditation, float in a swimming pool, spend time in nature, or take a yoga class. The practice that’s right for you will be the one that slows your pulse, quiets your mind, and allows you to feel at peace. So give it a try, with your doctor’s approval it can’t hurt and it just may help you in many ways!