Taming stress to fight cancer recurrence

Staff writer Andrea Torres chronicles her breast cancer experiences in Tropical Life. Read past columns at MiamiHerald.com/health.

09/04/2012 12:00 AM

09/18/2012 4:19 PM

My heart beat faster. The rhythm of my breath rose to a crescendo, and my left leg began to shake as if I were tapping to a punk-rock song. My job is sometimes like a rollercoaster ride, and anyone who knows me knows that I love it.

But I’m doing my best to avoid these moments of stress by consciously slowing my breath. I am also trying to meditate once a day. My parents taught me several techniques when I was growing up, but I never really got into the habit.

Researchers at the Vanderbilt University Center for Bone Biology are investigating the role of stress in the spread of cancer cells to organs and bones, where they are most likely to kill. Studies have shown that breast cancer patients who suffer from stress have shorter survival times.

“Preventing metastasis is really the goal we want to achieve. This would impact the treatment of millions of patients worldwide,” the center’s director, Florent Elefteriou, said in a Vanderbilt University report.

Scientists used mice to demonstrate that the “fight-or-flight” response to stress helps to prime the bones for cancer cells to expand. Then they administered a drug to inhibit nervous system signals that control the process.

The drug they are testing, called Propranolol, is a blood pressure medicine. The report explained the scientists injected fluorescent human breast cancer cells into the mice’s hearts. Cancer spread faster in the stressed mice.

The hopeful news is that the researchers believe this drug may serve as a good long-term treatment — and that efforts to reduce stress in patients can make a difference.

Thanks to my mom’s yoga practice, I learned that repeating mantras can be soothing. But I found them silly, and as school and work crowded my life, I found it hard to sit still and meditate.

Recently, I have been practicing a technique my father taught me when I was a teenager. He practiced the Silva Method, a self-help system designed to “train your mind to engage in positive mental processes,” my dad said.

Psychologist Jose Silva created the method in the 1940s, and it is now disseminated by a company with instructors around the world. I don’t believe in all of the claims made for it, but I do enjoy the relaxation techniques.

The idea is that visualizations during a relaxed state can help you improve your outlook on life. One of the techniques can be fun, and requires a bit of imagination.

First, I sit or lie down. Then I close my eyes and focus on my breath. I count three times to three, then three times to two, then three times to one, as I picture going up the stairs to a door that leads to a secret place.

To reach a home that I have imagined, I count to 20 as I go up another set of steps. This leads me into a house that is floating in the air, and the conscious dream can last up to 30 minutes. When I do this at night, I fall asleep.

There are some situations I find so stressful that they cause me physical pain, but now I try to calm myself down. Having the right attitude is important.

When I am stuck in traffic on U.S. 1 on my way to a meeting, I try to put things in perspective. I take deep breaths and ask myself, “How important is it?” The answer usually is, “Not more important than my health.”

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