Stress and Cancer

Dr Swami Karmananda Saraswati, MB, BS (Syd.)

Research studies throughout the world are continuing to amass evidence suggesting that nervous stress is a major contributing factor in the development of cancer. Mental and emotional stress are implicated in most of the diseases to which man succumbs, and the medical community is becoming increasingly aware of the potential of yoga and meditation practices in both the prevention and treatment of these diseases.

What are the mechanisms by which long term mental and emotional stress produce disease states in the tissues and organs of the body? The pioneer work on the effects of stress in the body was conducted by Dr Hans Selye in the 1950's and 6o's. He found that mammals counteract stress by flooding the body with the stress hormones - adrenalin and noradrenalin, released from the adrenal glands in response to sympathetic nervous system stimulation. Long term excessive levels of these hormones produce pathological, degenerative changes in susceptible tissues and organs throughout the body.

More recently, it has been found that psychic, environmental and emotional stresses are also modulated into the nervous system through stimulation of the hypothalamus in the brain. Raised hypothalamic activity leads to activation of the pituitary gland, the master control gland formed as an outgrowth from the under surface of the hypothalamus. Secretion of the pituitary hormones into the bloodstream activates the endocrine glands of the body, including the thyroid gland, the gonads, and the cortex of the adrenal glands, lying at the upper poles of the kidneys. The adrenal cortex releases corticosteroids into the blood. These steroids help to preserve body tissues from the damaging effects of a continuously maintained high stress level.

More recent research reports from Stanford University and Valley Medical Centre, USA, indicate that mental and emotional stress also affect the body's immune defence system.*1 This is the body's surveillance system, responsible for resistance to disease and infections. Much recent cancer research has been directed toward seeking ways of manipulating the immune system, attempting to mobilize the body's own defences and direct them against rebellious cancer cells. These attempts have been largely unsuccessful, however, the underlying principle, that cancer results from a breakdown of the body's self surveillance system, appears to be correct.

Working with experimental animals, a Californian team have shown that stress weakens both cellular and humoral responses of the immune system. They postulate that enough stress at a critical period in life can cause an immune deficit which paves the way for cancer or tumour development. Then, even if this mental or emotional stress is eventually alleviated, the malignant tumour may be far enough advanced to overwhelm the immunological resistance.

The link between stress and the immune system is becoming clearer. Animal studies have shown that lesions of the hypothalamus lead to depression of the immune system and it is thought that psychological depression may have a similar effect in human subjects, thereby rendering them immune-deficient and increasingly susceptible to development of cancer. Anything which alleviates mental depression would help the individual to resist the tumour.

The yogic treatment of depression is simple and effective. Depression is a symptom of diminished mental and physical energy. There is no need for tranquillizers or shock treatment in most cases. A short stay in an ashram and practicing suitable asanas, pranayamas and meditation, combined with karma yoga (creative service) will lift even the deepest veil of depression. The reported success of the myriad 'miracle cures' for cancer, may well be a record of the successful arousal of hope in severely depressed cancer victims, thereby bolstering the immune system through hypothalamic stimulation, allowing the body to throw off the developing cancer.

It has been observed by many doctors and social workers that individuals who are unable to express depression or grief outwardly and instead habitually internalize their sorrows over long periods of time, seem more prone to cancer. It is suggested that cancer is the visible physical expression of these unexpressed, internalized grief's and sorrows, stored up over a lifetime.

A recent Australian study of the bereavement reaction found that in the weeks immediately following the death of a spouse, the surviving partner's immune system was significantly depressed. In another study at New York's Sloan-Kettening Institute, researchers observed the development of cancer in both members of 1400 couples and suggested that the emotional stress, when one member of the partnership develops cancer or dies of it, may lead to the development of cancer in the partner.*2

Evidence from a study of patients at the University of Virginia Medical School, USA, has shown that behavioural and personality factors alone can be used to accurately predict which patients were suffering from lung cancer and which were not.*3

From another long term study of 1300 medical students, researchers have defined a type of personality which they claim is more cancer prone. Such individuals are generally found to be low key, non-aggressive persons who keep their emotions to themselves, tending to be lonely, ambivalent, having been deprived of close relationships with their parents.*3

Cancer is an emotionally charged subject throughout the world. Its rapidly increasing rate of incidence in our communities, together with its high mortality rate, evokes feelings of fear and helplessness in many of us. What the recent research reports suggest is that such feelings may well suppress the immune system and be a major factor in the individual succumbing to cancer himself.

Intervention of yoga practices which have profound effects on the levels of pranic energy in the body may boost the efficiency of the immunological system, providing the extra energy necessary to prevent proliferation of wayward cancer cells at this crucial stage in tumour development. The necessary research into the effects of yoga practices on tumour development has not as yet been carried out although it is well warranted and promises interesting results.

A small pioneering study by an Australian psychiatrist, Ainsly Meares, MD, DPM, has been reported in the Australian Medical Journal.*4 Meares was familiar with the benefits of meditation in relieving stress related disorders in his psychiatric and medical patients, and is author of a well-known book Relief Without Drugs. He decided to apply his techniques in cancer patients as the logical outcome towards which many avenues of medical research were leading. He explains his work in the following way :

"There is evidence to suggest some cancers are influenced by immunological reactions. There is some similarity between immunological reactions and allergic reactions. Some allergic reactions can be modified by meditative experience. Furthermore, some cancers are influenced by endocrine reactions, and some endocrine reactions can be modified by meditative experiences."

Dr Meares is interested in expanding his works into a larger study but finds that often patients are unable to apply themselves to the new form of treatment he offers, which requires a high level of motivation and commitment. Many choose to drop out of the treatment, preferring to await death fatalistically rather than make the continual conscious effort necessary if the rapidly proliferating cancer process in the body is to be halted and brought under conscious control of the will.

Meditation involves direction of prana shakti, conscious energy, inwards. Successful meditation requires a high level of prana shakti as fuel. Without prana shakti we cannot meditate and we cannot activate our wills. Cancer patients are often in a very debilitated state deficient in prana shakti, as cancer ravages their bodies, sapping the life energy for its own relentless proliferation.

Yogic techniques which increase the levels of prana shakti can motivate a sick and depleted patient to work for a cure of his illness. Techniques such as surya namaskara, pranayama, mudras and bandhas build up prana shakti quickly and powerfully, and can then be successfully followed by prana vidya (self healing through direction and control of prana). Such a program, however, should only be undertaken with competent guidance.

The dilemma the cancer patient faces is whether to await his death resignedly or else to throw his whole being into an all out attempt to conquer his cancer. Try to appreciate the depth of commitment which this struggle demands. To regain health his thoughts must become very one-pointed and his willpower awakened and mobilized continuously, without the luxury of indulging in the previous self defeating, 'comforting' thought patterns of drifting inevitably, unalterably and helplessly towards death. In a sense, the cancer patient may face his dilemma as the result of a long term 'death wish' which has coloured his life, his ventures and relationships. The pattern of thinking is one in which he assumes the role of 'victim' in life situations. 'It is life which is wrong; I am not responsible. It should not be like this, it is not just or fair.' So this person forever refuses to face life straight on, devoid of fantasies. He prefers to live in a dream world rather than the real world. This person is seldom successful in life for he refuses to get fully involved and will not accept the game of life as it is, in all its harshness and uncompromising reality. He feels he cannot muster and maintain the constant effort of will required to face life bravely and take up the implicit struggle. After a lifetime of avoiding reality, most cancer patients are unable to shake their life conditioned role of 'victim' and play it out to the end, as they glide inevitably towards death.

These thoughts are echoed by Professor Jean Kohler, an American professor of music who was diagnosed to be suffering from an inoperable cancer of the pancreas, proved during exploratory surgery, and given a few months to live. He accepted the challenge and, taking his life into his own hands, he applied himself totally to the science of macrobiotics. Five years later he is still alive, self cured without any signs of his cancer condition.

Inspired by what he had managed to achieve, he felt he had a mission to help other people who were facing death by cancer. He became a lecturer and travelled the country, coming into contact with many cancer patients. However, he found only 10-25% of these patients were ready to make the personal effort required to defeat the cancer in their bodies. To quote Dr Kohler:

"Basically cancer patients are unhappy, and most victims we find reject the program, not so much from scepticism, but because they don't want to change their way of life. They want to live, but they want to live on their terms. They have a problem, but if it cannot be solved to their liking, they solve it by checking out."*5

Scientific studies are showing clearly the truth of the yogic contention that our mental and emotional health is reflected in our state of physical health, and that the seeds of disease lie in our disordered and uncontrolled thought processes. In the light of these studies, we can predict that yoga will fulfil an important role in protecting our communities from the ravages of cancer in the years ahead. Through yoga the complexes and inhibitions lying at the base of ineffectual personality traits and self deprecating behaviour patterns are systematically brought to light and removed. The yoga practitioner adapts more readily to the flow of life, enjoying better mental and emotional health. He becomes increasingly sensitive to other people and capable of forming deep and satisfying human relationships, learning to respond to the many, varied experiences of life in a positive and creative manner.

By introducing yogic principles into our varied lifestyles, man can systematically balance the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimension of his being to arrive at true health. There is no need for us to fatalistically resign ourselves to premature suffering or death from cancer or other serious disease processes. Such attitudes of helplessness and resignation are one of the major reasons for the collective state of our health today. Yoga and meditation can pave the way to a positive acceptance of and responsibility for our health, our actions and our destinies.


*1-*3. "Hypothalamic Arousal Triggers Heart Disease; Cancer-Emotion Links Found", Brain/Mind Bulletin, vol. 3, no. 7, Feb. 20, 1978.

*4. A. Meares MD, DPM, "Regression of Cancer after Intensive Meditation", Med. J. Aust. 2:184, 1976.

*5. Prof. J. Kohler interviewed in East West Journal, May-June, 1977.