By Alexandra Goho
Signs of Stress
Scientists zero in on how the social environment can make people vulnerable to cancer
By Alexandra Goho
Amid the dilapidated brick houses, vacant lots and boarded-up buildings on Chicago’s South Side—an area widely known for its poverty and high crime rate—Sarah Gehlert sees a new picture of cancer emerging. A social scientist at the University of Chicago, she has spent the last several years studying this predominantly African-American community in hopes of explaining why so many young black women develop a particularly aggressive and lethal form of breast cancer. The answer, she believes, lies in their neighborhood.
Living in a socioeconomically depressed community can affect a person’s psychology. “There are neighborhoods where women are prisoners in their own homes,” says Gehlert. On a street where there is a lot of crime, a woman who lives on the first floor of a building that isn’t secure might be afraid to leave her home for fear of being assaulted, she says. Furthermore, people move around a lot in inner-city neighborhoods in search of safer housing, a situation that can disrupt social networks. All of these factors lead to many women feeling socially isolated.
The effects of chronic stress due to social isolation, in turn, can negatively affect a person’s physical well-being. A number of studies have suggested that chronic stress can contribute to the development and progression of cancer. However, because these studies traditionally rely on patient questionnaires, determining exactly how stress influences a person’s cancer has been difficult. “We don’t believe we’re capturing all the information about stress by just asking patients questions,” says Timothy Rebbeck, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Abramson Cancer Center.
Recent studies, including Gehlert’s, have taken on the more sophisticated task of linking patient interviews and neighborhood data with specific biomarkers—hormones and other biological cues produced in the body in response to stress. With results from animal experiments showing that these same biomarkers are also involved in fueling tumor growth, researchers are beginning to connect the dots.
A complete picture of how stress influences cancer could help doctors better treat patients and identify those at risk for the disease. But, it could also have ramifications well beyond that. As researchers like Gehlert try to understand health disparities in cancer—why some populations are more vulnerable than others—looking at how the social environment “gets under the skin,” as Gehlert puts it, could be critical to eliminating these gaps.