Presidential Select Symposium will examine biologic links between stress and cancer

While it is known that stress is bad for health in general, there are strong associations between multiple stressors and increased risk for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and now cancer.

Dave Tuveson, MD, PhD
David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD, FAACR

Stress can affect the immune system, circadian rhythm, cellular senescence, and other biological processes in ways that may contribute to the development and progression of cancer, according to AACR President David A. Tuveson, MD, PhD, FAACR, who organized and will chair Monday’s Presidential Select Symposium: Aging, Stress, and Cancer. The symposium will be held from 10:15 – 11:45 a.m. CDT in New Orleans Theater C at the convention center.

“One of the benefits of serving as AACR President is being able to initiate discussions,” Tuveson explained. “One of the discussions I initiated was on the theme of conditions that predispose individuals to get cancer. We know that one out of every two or three people get cancer today, so we should think about why cancer happens more often in certain situations.”

Factors as diverse as obesity, lower socioeconomic status, working at night, and military combat share a common theme: increased levels of stress.

“Stress is when people don’t sleep well at night, when they work more than one job to put food on the table, live in crowded conditions, go into combat,” Tuveson said. “When stress hormone levels are high, your immune system shuts down and cancer cells have a party because the body can’t clear them out. There are clear biologic links between sleep disturbance, stressful living, and cancer.”

Sleep disturbance and stress also disrupt circadian rhythm, which in turn disrupts cell-cycle DNA repair pathways, allowing unchecked proliferation that may promote prostate and other cancers, Tuveson explained.

Animal models of stress such as sleep disturbance and obesity also exhibit premature aging.

“Aging is part of life, like gray hair. Premature aging is part of disease,” Tuveson said. “When cells gray prematurely, they become a magnet for inflammation and cancer. Prematurely senescent cells in the skin may promote melanoma.”

The growing evidence for biological mechanisms linking stress and multiple cancer types represents a new approach to understanding cancer. The goal is to translate that new understanding into new diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive approaches to cancer.

“The symposium is really a proposal, developed with my advisory committee, on where we can go as a community,” Tuveson said. “This may be worth investigating further if we are going to get to that 50 percent reduction in cancer mortality in the next 25 years that we have all been discussing.”