Several scientific studies have shown that prolonged periods of grief and stress can trigger the onset of cancer.
When widows and widowers, for example, take long to recover from the loss of their loved ones, they can easily predispose themselves to cancer.
Politicians, businessmen, senior executives and journalists who get depressed at work because of deadlines and other hurdles are equally at risk.
Where is the association between stress/grief and cancer?
The grieving individual is usually at risk of physical and mental illness (depression) for a prolonged period if not cushioned against by social networks and proper counseling. In our modern societies, a good number of social networks have broken down while counseling has not been embraced as an important aspect of health care.
In cases where grief has not been confronted and resolved, or where it is denied and suppressed, an individual can put his body and metabolism through the risk of getting cancer.
Research shows that complicated grief increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol that weakens the immune system, depletes adrenaline reserves that breaks the cells oxygen krebs cycle. This creates the perfect cancer environment and causes the emotional reflex centre in the brain to slowly break down, resulting in the formation of cancer cells in corresponding organs.
Finally, prolonged disturbed sleep, as a consequence of complicated grief, worry or stress significantly decreases melatonin levels in the body that are important for inhibiting cancer cell growth.
Complicated grief therapy involves accepting death and loss as natural and inescapable process of life. Alternative medicine has come up with various techniques and therapies for dealing with grief. This is a branch of medical science and practice can’t be ignored.
Such practices as yoga and ayuverdic medicine from the oriental world have tremendous results.
Moreover, left untreated, complicated grief is associated with negative health outcomes, which may include clinical depression, suicidal thoughts or actions, substance abuse, cancer and cardiovascular illness. Our medical staff should diagnose patients more carefully when they encounter complaints, which are not necessarily associated with physical ailments. These complaints can always be traced to the state of the mind.
Complicated stress is like complicated grief, although it is often hidden in false forms of exuberance and confidence. At times it may also be expressed in unusual aggressiveness, arrogance and intolerance.
In April, 2010, the journal, Scientific American, reported that while a little stress can do us good by pushing us to compete and innovate, chronic stress can increase the risk of diseases such as depression, heart disease and even cancer.
By weakening the immune system, which fights the formation of cancer cells everyday, chronic stress destroys our defense system against this lethal disease.
In the same month, the Journal of Clinical Investigation reported that stress hormones, such as adrenaline can directly support tumor growth and spread.
This simply demonstrates that cancer may be increasing due to increased levels of stress and complicated depression that we have not paid attention to.
One way of paying attention is to speak and write about these problems, to make people aware that they exist and not to assume they only affect people in advanced societies.
We need to devise ways of dealing with them.
First, the environments in which we live and work should reduce stress. An authoritarian system of management in the work place is a stress inducing environment. People should discuss and share problems without bureaucracy and rank pulling.
Second, social networks and leisure are important for all social classes. It is not good having golf courses for the middle and upper classes and fail to provide space for leisure activities for workers. Poverty life is definitely stress inducing.
Third, mental illness and sustaining the healthy mind needs to be properly taken care of. This should not be seen as a subject of reference to mental Hospitals.
These are simply at the end chain of dealing with mental wellness. The rest of the chain begins with the individual mental health at the family level, travels through how society deals with mental wellness and only comes to the hospital when the chain breaks down.
A good example is the daily stress that Nairobians go through to and from work. Most go to sleep already worrying how they will get to the office interfering with good sleep.
At about four in the afternoon, the person is already worrying how to get home.
We are glad road expansion is being done to ease the pain. Nairobi will have to be further restructured to reduce the stress levels in our transport system.
(The writer is Minister for Medical Services, the opinion was first published in the Standard)