A woman who experiences high levels of stress over a sustained period may be undermining her ability to fight off a common STD and be at increased risk of developing cervical cancer it can cause, according to an article published in Annals of Behavioral Medicine, February issue. No studies have ever shown a link between past major life events, such as job loss or divorce, and the body’s response to infection, the authors say.

HPV (Human papillomavirus) sub-types, especially HPV16 can cause cervical cancer – the virus is spread during sexual intercourse. The authors explain that HPV infection alone is not enough to cause cervical cancer. In most cases, HPV infection in healthy women will vanish suddenly over time. A small proportion of infected women will progress to having precancerous cervical lesions or cancer. In other words, women whose immune response to HPV are effective get rid of the virus, while others whose response is less effective continue being infected and are at a much higher risk of developing cervical cancer.

The authors assumed that stress could trigger changes in immune functioning that make it more difficult for the body to get rid of the virus. They decided to carry out a study to find out whether this was the case.

In this study, the scientists looked at potential links between stress and immune response to HPV among women who had precancerous cervical lesions. The participants completed a questionnaire which asked them about their perceived stress over the past month. They were also asked questions related to major stressful life events that had occurred, such as the death of a close relative, the loss of a job, and divorce.

Carolyn Y. Fang, Ph.D., Fox Chase Cancer Center, said “We were surprised to discover no significant association between the occurrence of major stressful life events and immune response to HPV16. This could be due to the amount of time that has passed since the event occurred and how individuals assess and cope with the event. Our findings about subjective daily stress told a different story, however. Women with higher levels of perceived stress were more likely to have an impaired immune response to HPV16. That means women who report feeling more stressed could be at greater risk of developing cervical cancer because their immune system can’t fight off one of the most common viruses that causes it.”

“Perceived Stress is Associated with Impaired T-Cell Response to HPV16 in Women with Cervical Dysplasia”
Carolyn Y. Fang, Suzanne M. Miller1, Dana H. Bovbjerg, Cynthia Bergman, Mitchell I. Edelson, Norman G. Rosenblum, Betsy A. Bove, Andrew K. Godwin, Donald E. Campbell and Steven D. Douglas
Annals of Behavioral Medicine – 10.1007/s12160-007-9007-6
Click here to view abstract online

Written by – Christian Nordqvist