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Stress Reduction in Cancer Patients May Pay Off

Study Examines the Link Between Stress Reduction and Telomere Length
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

April 2, 2011 -- Cancer patients who learn to cope with their stress can have improvement in stress-related biomarkers after a short time, new research suggests.

And that could translate to improved health and possibly improved survival, says researcher Edward Nelson, MD, chief of hematology and oncology at the University of California, Irvine.

The biomarker Nelson looked at is the length of telomeres. Telomeres are the structures on the ends of chromosomes that keep the chromosomes from deteriorating or otherwise going haywire. They're often compared to the caps on the ends of shoelaces.

They can shorten with advancing age, but can also shorten with stress. Stress, in turn, may increase the rate of cancer growth and spread.

Stress reduction can lengthen the telomeres, the new research finds.

"Women participating in our clinical study who experienced an improved qualify of life and decreased stress response had an increase in telomere length in the circulating white blood cells," Nelson tells WebMD.

He is presenting his findings Saturday at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.

Role of Telomeres

Experts agree, Nelson says, that telomeres ''play a very critical role in maintaining the integrity of the chromosomes and the genes within a cell."

It's now known, he says, that a complex mechanism is in place to maintain these protective caps at the end of chromosomes.

When telomeres get very short, he says, ''they trigger the chromosomes to fuse together, break, or rearrange. In rare circumstances, these sorts of rearranging and damage to the gene can result in the development of cancer."

"In some cancers, the tumor cells have hijacked this mechanism for maintaining the telomeres," Nelson says.

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