We all accept that stress is harmful to health, but studies by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that there appeared to be a link between stress and more aggressive types of breast cancer. It also looked at why breast cancer is generally more aggressive in Latino and Black women.

The study was based on 989 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer within the last three months. The candidates included 181 Hispanic, 397 non-Hispanic White and 411 non-Hispanic Black participants. The study compared the aggressiveness of the breast cancer with the race and the stress levels of each patient. The results showed that Black and Hispanic patients reported greater levels of psychosocial stress in terms of fear, anxiety and isolation. Those with higher levels of stress were also found to have tumors that were more aggressive.

It raises a number of interesting issues that all need more research to find out the connection between the three issues of race, stress and aggressiveness of the breast tumor. In particular, researchers are looking at whether psychosocial stressors increase the aggressiveness of tumors, or whether the diagnosis causes more stress in some races than others. The study showed the top 18% of women with the highest stress levels were more likely to be diagnosed with aggressive tumors, but when age and cancer stage were accounted for, the link disappeared.

Previous studies have shown that American Black and Latino women had more aggressive breast cancer at the time they were diagnosed than white women. As yet doctors were unable to state whether minority races were more susceptible to aggressive types of cancer, or whether their socioeconomic situation meant that the cancer was not diagnosed until it had reached a more aggressive stage.

The most recent study added in the factor of stress. It found that patients with higher stress levels had more aggressive types of breast cancer, and it was mainly black and Latino women who reported the highest stress levels. What is as yet unknown is whether the patients had more stress in their life before their diagnosis or whether being diagnosed with breast cancer was more stressful to them than to white patients.

Assuming that stress levels were the same before being diagnosed with breast cancer, raises the question of whether the stress was a factor in the women developing a more aggressive type of cancer. Another possibility is that having the more aggressive disease caused the additional stress.

The study was recently presented to the American Association for Cancer Research in Washington by Garth H. Raucher, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Illinois in Chicago, who led the research study. He says that more research is needed to understand the relationship between stress and breast cancer. While admitting the possibility that “there may be a biologic role of stress in the development of breast tumors that warrants further research,” Raucher was quick to emphasize that it does not necessarily mean that those with stress are at greater risk of suffering more aggressive breast cancer.