The stress dis-ease connection
Gabor Maté

There was a study in Toronto where they looked at the women who had survived breast cancer and they asked them, what is it that they think had caused the cancer and what helped them survive it and more women put down stress than any other factor. Now the researchers, being medical doctors, said this just shows you how out of touch everybody is. People blame stress for everything. In fact, there’s no evidence that stress has anything to do with breast cancer. We know that there’s a lot of evidence linking hormones and breast cancer, maybe some evidence linking into certain genetics and maybe some evidence linking diet to breast cancer, but not stress. Well guess who was right? The medical doctors were dead wrong. The women were totally right.

If you look at the hormone related cancers, which by the way many of them are, like testicular cancer or prostate cancer in men or breast cancer in women, a number of things emerge. One is of course that the medical profession treats them totally as biological events, narrowly biological events. There was a study in Toronto where they looked at the women who had survived breast cancer and they asked them, what is it that they think had caused the cancer and what helped them survive it and more women put down stress than any other factor. Now the researchers, being medical doctors, said this just shows you how out of touch everybody is. People blame stress for everything. In fact, there’s no evidence that stress has anything to do with breast cancer. We know that there’s a lot of evidence linking hormones and breast cancer, maybe some evidence linking into certain genetics and maybe some evidence linking diet to breast cancer, but not stress. Well guess who was right? The medical doctors were dead wrong. The women were totally right.

First of all genetics, out of 100 women with breast cancer 7 will have the breast cancer gene, 93 do not. Out of 100 women with the breast cancer gene not all of them will get cancer. Their risk certainly goes up but there’s no one-to-one relationship between having the gene and having the cancer. And most women with breast cancer have no identified gene, number one. When it comes to diet there’s a very weak relationship. I won’t deny it but it’s statistically not all that significant. Hormonally, yes, some breast cancers are obviously driven by estrogen for example, so we give them medication to suppress or to block their estrogen receptors so that the estrogen no longer drives the cancer. But, where the argument breaks down is when you look at the relationship between stress and hormones, hormones have everything to do with stress. Whether in men or women, you can predictably interfere with their healthy hormonal balance by imposing emotional stresses on them. The loss of a football game will reduce the testosterone levels of the fans or the loss of a soccer game. Nobody ever touched them physically. If you measure their testosterone levels before and after the game, the losing team’s fans will have diminished testosterone levels. Now, in female monkeys in captivity, if you look at female hormone levels like estrogen, progesterone, folic or stimulating hormones and so on, and if you look at the cortisol levels, the monkeys who are subordinate therefore are bullied will have high cortisol levels, abnormal female hormone levels and ovulatory abnormal menstruation patterns compared to the dominant monkeys who are not stressed. But if you switch the groups around so that the dominant monkeys now become bullied and previously subordinate ones now become the at the top of the totem pole, their hormonal levels change within a month. Cortisol levels in the newly dominant monkeys go down and their menstruations become normal and vice versa. So for the researchers to say that hormones have a lot to do with it but stress is nothing, they don’t understand the simple relationship between hormones and stress and cortisol is a stress hormone.  How can you say that it has nothing to do with stress? It’s absurd.

If you look at the histories of men with testicular cancer you find childhood trauma as in Lance Armstrong. That guy is a traumatized person, hence his drive to succeed, his need to validate himself, his need to be at the top because he was an abused child who’s mother was a 17 or 18 year old when she had him, his father abandoned him. She marries an abusive guy called Armstrong who beats the hell out of the kid and Lance Armstrong has been compensating for that all his life, including with hormones. And if you talk to women with breast cancer, in their lives there’s always childhood emotional loss, significant emotional loss for which they compensate by suppressing themselves, by not saying no until their body says no for them and I’ve had hundreds of women tell me that. Once they read that chapter in my book they just recognized themselves and they’re grateful to do so. Some say you blame me for my disease. Again I say I’m not because you’re not doing this deliberately. These are your adaptive patterns that you applied without any conscious choice in the matter at all as a matter of survival. How can you be blamed for that? On the other hand, if you stop doing it now, that can enhance your health, if you recognize it and are able to break out of it. So again, the relationship between childhood experience, hormones, stress, and adult illness is very straightforward.