Taking Aim at Stress

Biobehavioral researcher Carolyn Fang admits that when she gets busy and stressed out, she eats at her desk. “I’m wolfing down my lunch so I can move on to the next thing,” she says with a laugh. “But you’re not paying attention to your body when you eat that way. You aren’t even really aware whether you’re full or you’re hungry.” That type of behavior can be linked to obesity and other adverse health outcomes, as Fang is well aware.

But it’s precisely those kinds of behaviors that spark her interest in her work as co-leader of Fox Chase’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program. A major focus of her research is how stress can contribute to behavioral or biological changes that may increase cancer risk. For example, in a pilot study of women at increased risk for cervical cancer, Fang and her colleagues found that those who reported feeling more stressed had a poorer immune response to human papilloma virus, or HPV, the virus that causes the cancer.

What can people do to safeguard themselves if they are experiencing high stress levels? Programs such as mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, may have benefits for one’s health. MBSR is an eight-week curriculum that teaches participants to recognize and counteract the body’s automatic responses to stress—the hurried eating Fang describes, or hunching your shoulders and clenching your fists when you’re stuck in traffic. “MBSR is a standardized program that is broadly available in the community,” Fang says. “And research suggests the effects are robust as far as reducing stress and enhancing quality
of life.”

In a study involving a heterogeneous sample of men and women, Fang and her colleagues measured participants’ immune responses before and after receiving training in MBSR. “What was really interesting is that simply completing MBSR did not necessarily yield a benefit in immune functioning,” Fang says, “but those who reported improvement in their psychological functioning after going through the program showed improvement in their immune markers as well.”

Fang is now working on a new study evaluating the effects of MBSR on immune response to HPV in a larger, clinically relevant sample. Making definitive clinical recommendations is still a long way off, she says, but the good news is that stress reduction is readily available without a prescription. “MBSR or other approaches such as yoga can be helpful in enhancing your quality of life,” she says, “and they may have a biological benefit as well.”