Stressful Life Events Linked to Cancer

A study of 91 patients at a university medical center suggests that a troubled early parent-child relationship in combination with a severe life event in the past year may be associated with immune responses to a basal cell carcinoma tumor, the most common skin cancer, according to a report in the June issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, a JAMA Network publication.

Stressful events and their resulting negative emotions can impair immunity enough to produce clinically significant alterations, and the immune system plays a role in basal cell carcinoma (BCC) tumor appearance and progression, according to the study background.

“Our results show that among BCC patients who experienced a severe stressor in the past year, those who were emotionally maltreated by their mothers or fathers as children were more likely to have poorer immune responses," the authors note.

Risk factors for the first tumor include age, childhood sun exposure, fair skin and being male, and the authors note subsequent tumors are not reliably related to those variables.

Prominent role

“The immune system plays a prominent role in response to BCC tumors because they are immunogenic, unlike many other common cancers that do not show the same responsiveness to the immune system,” the authors comment. “Psychological stress may play an important role in the tumor environment for this immunogenic tumor and have important implications for subsequent BCC tumors.”

Christopher P. Fagundes, Ph.D., of The Ohio State University Medical Center, Columbus, and colleagues collected information about early parent-child experiences, recent severe life events, depression and messenger RNA for immune markers associated with tumor progression and regression.

The patients, 48 men and 43 women, ranged in age from 23 to 92 years and had a previous BCC tumor.

First study

Emotional maltreatment was not associated with BCC immune responses among those who did not experience a severe life event, and depressive symptoms were not associated with the local tumor immune response, according to study results.

“This is the first study, to our knowledge, to show that troubled early parental experiences, in combination with a severe life event in the past year, predict local immune responses to a BCC tumor. These data complement and expand increasing evidence that the consequences of early parental experiences extend well beyond childhood,” the authors conclude.

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