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Can Loneliness Increase Breast Cancer Tumor Growth?

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A growing body of research suggests that cancer patients who have strong support networks fare better than patients who deal with their cancer alone. A person's social network size and social connectedness have long been thought to affect a person’s health and well-being.

“A cancer diagnosis adds an enormous amount of stress to a person’s life,” says Harold J. Burstein, MD, a staff oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “But people who have strong social supports -- good friends and family -- tend to cope much better.”

Now researchers at the University of Chicago using mice models to study human breast cancer have demonstrated that negative social environments—isolation in this study —caused increased tumor growth.

The work shows for the first time that social isolation is associated with altered gene expression, and stress brought on by loneliness could ultimately increase a breast tumor’s growth.

The University of Chicago researchers, Suzanne D. Conzen, MD, associate professor of medicine, and Bio-behavioral psychologist Martha McClintock, PhD, professor of psychology and founder of the Institute for Mind and Biology, took mice that were genetically predisposed to develop breast cancer and raised them in either a group or isolated environment. After the same amount of time, the isolated mice grew larger breast cancer tumors. They were also found to have developed a disrupted stress hormone response.

“I doubted there would be a difference in the growth of the tumors in such a strong model of genetically inherited cancer simply based on chronic stress in their environments, so I was surprised to see a clear, measurable difference both in mammary gland tumor growth and interestingly, in accompanying behavior and stress hormone levels,” Dr. Conzen said.

The findings, published September 30, 2009 in Cancer Prevention Research also support previous epidemiologic studies suggesting that social isolation increases the mortality of chronic diseases, as well as clinical studies revealing that social support improves the outcomes of cancer patients.

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Pat, I too was fascinated by this article. So often when a friend or family member is diagnosed with a serious illness, like cancer, we want to help, but quite often just don't know what to do. Sometimes we feel powerless. It is nice to know that by merely giving our love and support we can make a difference. Caring is a powerful word and an even more powerful action. It is so wonderful that there are communities such as these where we can support one another. Thank you for sharing your comment.

October 9, 2009 - 9:38am
Expert HERWriter Guide Blogger

AZSunshineGirl - What an interesting article! I've seen a number of studies that associate health status with whether or not people have a support network, but this is the first I've heard that isolation could affect tumor growth. We are fortunate today that there are online services like the CaringBridge website that enable people to connect with loved ones during a serious illness and build a personal support team. And, of course, the EmpowHer site is all about connecting people so they're not alone while dealing with a health concern. Thanks so much for this fascinating information. Pat

October 8, 2009 - 6:47pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.