Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer can be one of the most significant life stressors a woman may ever encounter. Breast cancer survivors are more susceptible to psychological problems because of the physical and emotional effects of treatment. Women who have mastectomies may have difficulty accepting their new physical appearance and succumb to depression. Other women may fear the cancer will return at some point in the future and experience high levels of anxiety. Although these reactions are not uncommon for cancer survivors, they may be more pronounced in women with a history of childhood adversity and maltreatment. Research has shown that childhood maltreatment can increase stress response in adulthood. Life stressors that may only mildly affect a person with no childhood trauma may dramatically affect a person who has survived childhood abuse. The increased stress experienced by some people can compromise their immune systems and make them more vulnerable to infections as well. The herpes virus is one condition that is known to be exacerbated by stress. It can lay dormant for decades and flare up when an individual encounters highly stressful circumstances.
To determine if childhood adversity increases the manifestation of herpes virus in adulthood, Christopher P. Fagundes of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Ohio State University College of Medicine recently led a study that compared herpes virus outbreaks in a sample of 108 breast cancer survivors. Fagundes looked specifically for the presence of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and cytomegalovirus (CMV), two common conditions of the herpes virus. He compared the presence of those viruses in the participants who had a history of childhood adversity to the participants with no history of childhood adversity and found that the survivors with childhood traumas and struggles had increased rates of both CMV and EVB antibodies. He also found that the women with past childhood adversities had more sleep impairments, higher rates of depression, and lower education levels than the other participants. Fagundes believes that the stress response developed in childhood resulted in a weakened immune system in adulthood for the women with a history of adversity. “These findings add to the emerging literature suggesting that adverse early experiences may make people more vulnerable to immune dysregulation in adulthood.” He added, “The consequences of early adversity appear to persist across the life span.”
Fagundes, C. P., Glaser, R., Malarkey, W. B., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2012). Childhood adversity and Herpes virus latency in breast cancer survivors. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028595
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