Breast cancer and stress

Posted on Nov 28, 2008 in Cancer

 Is belly dancing the new feminism? An article in Habibi, a journal of Middle Eastern dance, says that when belly dancers “place the roots of belly dance in goddess worship or birth ritual, they express the idea that this dance receives its vital power from an ultimately feminine force” (http://people.uncw.edu/deagona/raqs/feminism.htm#_ftn1). Driven by a belief that this force has healing powers, some American women with breast cancer are turning to belly dancing. The benefits, says DancerCancer, a listserv for belly dancers with breast cancer (www.shira.net/breast-cancer.htm), include boosting your sense of femininity, rediscovering your inner spirituality, toning up your “chemo-inflated” body, and reducing stress.

The internet bombards women with the message that stress causes breast cancer, and that being relaxed and upbeat can prevent cancer recurrence. But this belief can cause women to blame themselves for their illness or its recurrence. However, there is no high quality evidence that stress causes breast cancer. CancerBacup says as much in its excellent summary of the studies on stress and breast cancer (www.cancerbacup.org.uk/questions/living/general/stress-and-cancer.htm). And a prospective study in this week’s BMJ finds no relationship between stressful life experiences and breast cancer recurrence (p 1420).

This study is surely good news, but it will probably do little to change the internet’s message that stress free means cancer free. One breast cancer patient who does not believe the hype is Barbara Ehrenreich, an editor at Harper’s Magazine. In her brilliant essay “Welcome to Cancerland” (www.bcaction.org/PDF/Harpers.pdf), she rages against the “culture” of breast cancerthe teddy bears, pink ribbons, and forced cheerfulness. “I will not,” she says, “go into that last good night with a teddy bear tucked under my arm.”