According to the American Cancer Society, more than 1,500 Americans die each day from cancer. It is the second most common cause of death, exceeded only by heart disease. For women breast cancer is the most prevalent and for men it is prostate cancer. The good news is that the five-year survival rate for all cancers diagnosed between 1999 and 2005 is 60 percent, up from 50 percent in earlier years.
Researchers have not found any one factor to be the cause of cancer. Different types of cancers have different statistics and contributing factors. For example, there is a strong connection between smoking and lung cancer. Obesity increases the odds of getting cancer, as does exposure to certain environmental factors, such as asbestos or benzene. Other cause and effect statistics are more elusive.
Though evidence thus far has been inconclusive and often controversial, many researchers, doctors and patients believe that high levels of chronic stress may cause or, at the very least, create an ideal climate within the body for cancer cells to proliferate.
What Is Cancer?
Cancer is a generic term used for diseases where abnormal cells divide without the usual biological controls. These cells are able to invade other tissues and spread throughout the body via blood and lymph circulation. The National Cancer Institute has listed more than 100 types of cancer, which can be grouped into five basic classifications:
- Carcinoma – cancer that has origins in skin or the coverings of internal organs.
- Sarcoma – cancer that has origins in connective tissue, such as bone, cartilage, fat, muscle and blood vessels
- Leukemia – cancer that begins in blood forming tissue, such as bone marrow
- Lymphoma and Myeloma – cancers with origins in the immune system
- Central Nervous System Cancers – cancers beginning in the brain and spinal cord
The abnormal division of cells can be the result of many things. The DNA of a cell might become damaged or somehow changed, producing a mutation affecting cell growth and division. This can result in a tumor. Not all tumors are cancerous and not all cancers produce tumors. (Leukemia, for example, does not produce tumors.) Only malignant tumors are referred to as cancer because of their ability to metastasize or spread from one area of the body to another.
The Role of Stress in Cancer
While results have been somewhat inconclusive and at times contradictory, there are some interesting discoveries regarding the possible connection between stress levels and cancer. It has long been believed that the human body has cancer cells circulating within the body most of the time. In a healthy person, with a strong immune system, these cells are continually monitored and kept in check or destroyed. The question then arises as to why only a certain percentage of the population develop cancer and what, if anything, can be done to prevent it? Where does stress come into play? Is stress a cause of cancer, or is it simply a byproduct of the disease?
A person under stress produces high levels of cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline), which have been shown to make cancer cells (specifically breast and prostate) resistant to death. In other words, increased levels of these substances help cancer cells to grow, which might reduce the effectiveness of cancer treatments, cause cancer cells to grow more quickly and might even allow for cancer cells to grow rather than be destroyed naturally.
While stress may not be a direct cause of cancer, prolonged stress can lead to a person adopting behaviors that are known factors leading to an increase in the likelihood of developing cancer during one’s lifetime, such as smoking, overeating and abusing drugs or alcohol.
How Massage Therapy Can Help
There is no definitive research that shows massage can cure or even prevent cancer. That’s the bad news. The good news is that massage is well known for reducing stress and helping to enhance the immune system, and it has been shown that well managed stress and a healthy immune system might just be one of the keys to the inherent control of cancer cells within the body.
Research indicates that regular massage reduces both cortisol levels and the production of epinephrine, which are released when the body switches from “rest and digest” to “fight, flight or freeze” mode. Massage has also been shown to enhance the immune system and increase the ability to fight off illness and fatigue.
For massage to be truly effective it should be received on a regular basis – once a week, every two weeks, even once a month is helpful. A one-time massage may feel great, but for it to have a long-lasting effect on the body and to be considered therapeutic, receiving massage should be a long-term commitment both for the massage therapist and for clients. In addition to getting a massage there are many ways to help reduce overall stress. Using yoga, meditation, taking breaks from a hectic schedule and doing things you love all contribute to both stress reduction and immune system enhancement.
With results inconclusive as to the connection between stress and cancer, perhaps it is best to err on the side of being proactive. Keeping yourself mentally sound and physically fit by eating right, staying active and getting a regular massage might just be the way to a long, healthy life!
Editor’s Note: If a client comes in with a diagnosis of cancer, the massage therapist should receive written clearance from his or her doctor before proceeding with any massage therapy. It is also advised that the massage therapist have advance training in working with cancer patients.