Reducing stress can be life-changer for women with high cancer risk — Israeli study

BRCA mutations, common to Ashkenazi Jews, pose a danger that often casts shadow on mental health; coping techniques can help people when facing potentially life-saving surgery

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Illustrative image: a woman undergoes a mammogram (gorodenkoff via iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image: a woman undergoes a mammogram (gorodenkoff via iStock by Getty Images)

An Israeli study has shone a spotlight on the major benefits of stress reduction measures for women who are at elevated risk of cancer.

Reducing stress can have such a strong effect on one’s psychological outlook that it can even make women feel more able to face surgery like breast removal, which may save their lives, the peer-reviewed research found.

It can also sharply improve emotional well-being and quality of sleep in a demographic that tends to experience much stress and worry over the high chance of developing cancer.

Women with harmful variants in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene have a significantly increased risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.

The variants are particularly common among Ashkenazi Jews, occurring in one out of every 40 women. The specter of high cancer risk often casts a shadow on women’s well-being and mental health.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 50 percent of women with a BRCA gene mutation will be diagnosed with breast cancer by age 70, compared with 7% of women in the general US population. For ovarian cancer, the figure is 30% compared to under 1%.

The increased risk often goes hand-in-hand with psychological difficulties and disturbed sleep. This prompted researchers at Tel Aviv University to explore whether workshops and tools for promoting personal health, relief of stress and tension, and strengthening of mental soundness can improve the emotional well-being of carriers.

“We found the benefits were great — including addressing disturbed sleep and returning it to normal — and we think the results indicate that care for people with mutations should include more psychological elements,” Dr. Shahar Lev-Ari of Tel Aviv University’s medical school, one of the researchers behind the study, told The Times of Israel.

Illustrative image: a doctor holds up a pink ribbon for breast cancer awareness. (dragana991 via iStock by Getty Images)

He said that the plight faced by women who know they have a mutation is hard, and many actually push off decisions on potentially life-saving measures, like deciding to have a risk-reducing mastectomy and/or oophorectomy. This measure is recommended to many women at around age 40, but the emotional burden prevents many from making a decision, Lev-Ari noted.

“We are talking about a population that often consists of young women whose mothers have or had cancer, and who think of the mutation like it’s a ticking bomb. Many remove breasts or ovaries after having children, but some struggle with this decision, and regardless of this, people live with many fears, about the future, about not seeing their kids grow up, and more.”

Dr. Shahar Lev-Ari of Tel Aviv University (courtesy of Tel Aviv University)

The study involved 100 Israeli women with a mutation, who started using workshops and self-practice from the Inquiry Based Stress Reduction technique. Lev-Ari believes that the results will hold true for other stress reduction approaches as well.

He said that after participating in the workshops and self-practice, the carriers showed significant improvement in positive relations with others, life goals, and self-acceptance. The improvement of sleep quality is a major quality-of-life gain, he said.

The researchers documented a changed attitude towards surgery among participants, with some moving from a position of ruling out any procedure to making an appointment.

Lev-Ari and his colleagues Prof. Eitan Friedman of Sheba Medical Center and PhD student Clara Landau are eager to see their findings impact policy. “We recommend that health systems give women tools to take care not only of the physical but also to provide psychological and emotional support,” he commented.

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