Social Life's Impact on Cancer

Does an active, engaging social life benefit people with cancer? Some researchers conclude there's a high probability that it does.

In a recent experiment, mice with cancer lived in cages surrounded by other mice instead of living in isolation. The researchers referred to this as an "enriched environment." They found that tumor mass decreased 72 percent and tumor volume decreased by 43 percent. After three weeks, five percent of the mice showed no evidence of cancer.

The researchers concluded that living in an enriched environment leads to significant inhibition of cancer growth.

We often advise cancer patients to avoid, or minimize, stress as much as possible. However, in this study, the researchers used stress caused by a social environment to make the mice's lives more complex and challenging. Since the study used mice as subjects, researchers can only hypothesize that these results would also apply to humans. However, scientists have long studied if, and how, psychosocial factors play a role in disease prevention, treatment, and recurrence. In fact, there's a new field emerging, called social neuroscience, to study this phenomenon.

Earlier this year, other researchers published a study, which found that a psychological intervention positively affected the long-term health of breast cancer patients. The intervention broadened women's understanding of the nature of cancer stress and taught them strategies to decrease stress and increase their quality of life.

After an average of 11 years, the women's risk for recurrence was lower and they exhibited positive psychological, social, immune, and health benefits. The women who did not receive the intervention continued to experience stress and a significant decrease in immunity.

Some scientists do not support the association between positive psychology and disease management. In an article titled, "Positive psychology in cancer care: bad science, exaggerated claims, and unproven medicine" in the February 2010 issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the authors stated, "Claims about these areas of research routinely made in the positive psychology literature do not fit with available evidence.... We urge positive psychologists to rededicate themselves to a positive psychology based on scientific evidence rather than wishful thinking."

In the same issue, their colleagues offered a rebuttal: "It's premature to abandon efforts to understand and promote positive phenomena among people with various life-threatening illnesses. Instead, well-validated measures of positive phenomena should become routinely incorporated into a broader array of health psychology studies to provide a rigorous test of their role in human health and adaptation to disease."

Until we know for sure, cancer patients may want to increase their positive stress by surrounding themselves with a supportive social network.

National Cancer Institute. "Life after treatment." Web. 1 September 2006.

Cao, Lei, Lui, Xianglan, Lin, En-Ju D., Wang, Chuansong, Choi, Eugene Y., Riban, Veronique, Lin, Benjamin, and During, Matthew J. "Environmental and Genetic Activation of a Brain-Adipocyte BDNF/Leptin Axis Causes Cancer Remission and Inhibition." Cell 142(1) (2010): 52-64. Web.

Barclay, Laurie M.D. "Psychological Intervention Offers Long-Term Health Benefits for Women With Breast Cancer." Medscape Medical News. Web. 16 June 2010.

Coyne, J.C., and Tennen, H. "Positive psychology in cancer care: bad science, exaggerated claims, and unproven medicine." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 39(1) (2010): 16-26.

Aspinwall, L.G., and Tedeschi, R.G. "Of babies and bathwater: a reply to Coyne and Tennen's views on positive psychology and health." Annals of Behavioral Medicine 39(1) (2010): 27-34. Web.