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From the cell to the soul

Andrew Baum's research on stress and cancer is a Catch-22. Stress causes cancer. Cancer causes stress.

Learning about one helps researchers learn about the other, says Dr. Baum, who joined UT Arlington in 2006 as the Jenkins Garrett Professor of Psychology in the College of Science.

His goal is to identify the links between stress and cancer from the cell to the soul. Stress hormones damage cells, but how and why? Some patients embrace preventive measures; others don't. Patients in late-stage cancer want to know why their cancer progressed.

Andrew Baum

Andrew Baum, psychology professor

Baum's 35-plus years of stress research have earned him a top reputation, including 25 years of continuous funding by the National Institutes of Health. His research team includes Angela Doogall, assistant professor of psychology, and Frank Jenkins of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute.

Animal studies show that stress hormones can cause oxidative damage to cells, which then may mutate. Cancer is caused by multiple mutations in the cell replication process.

"Cells have internal repair capabilities, and the immune system is a very good mediator of cancer," says Baum, director of UT Arlington's Center for the Study of Health and Illness. "I think we're on to something with stress causing oxidative damage to cells."

Animals experience stress the old-fashioned way, as a fight-or-flight response triggered by stress hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol released by the adrenal gland. The animal either runs or fights, both of which require a boost in energy from glucose. Humans have more complex stressors and a more complex world. Fight or flight isn't the correct option when it comes to mounting bills or an annoying boss.

"The way the body is designed to work, stress is supposed to be short term," Baum says.

Stress interferes with sleep, affects other hormones, and in general wears down the body, leaving it prone to infection. Long-term stress increases the amount of time cells are exposed to stress hormones such as cortisol, and eventually cell damage ensues.

"There's no way to avoid it," Baum says of stress. "You can minimize it, can reinterpret events, reappraise them, and change the way you think about them. Learn to problem solve. Exercise also helps."

His research into screenings for breast and ovarian cancers showed faulty logic by some women in making decisions about prevention. Cancer induces fear, and engaging in screenings, which reduce the danger of cancer, may add to fears.

"It's very irrational, but rational," Baum says of avoidance. "People are reducing their fear by ignoring a danger and making themselves feel better. People are so frightened of cancer. Heart disease kills more people, but it doesn't scare people in the same ways."

Stress-reducing techniques help cancer patients cope with their diagnosis, and some studies show that patients who practice these techniques have a lower recurrence of tumors. Back to the Catch-22. Patients who practice stress-reducing techniques and have a strong support system have a lower recurrence of tumors. That support system can reduce stress. But support systems are not always on the same wavelength as patients or survivors.

"Most cancer patients wear it as a badge of honor to have survived. Few push it away," Baum says. "But family and friends want to push it into the background and not talk about it. They're scared. It's very fear-inducing."

Baum hopes his research into stress and early cell mutation will lead to the development of biomarkers that could be used to predict cancer development.

- Teresa Newton