Scientists try to unravel role of stress on cervical cancer

In collaboration with the Press Association

A small study has suggested that daily stress may reduce a woman's ability to fight off strain 16 of the human papillomavirus (HPV16), which is responsible for the majority of cases of cervical cancer.

But a Cancer Research UK spokesperson said that the study was far too small to be conclusive.

HPV is a sexually transmitted infection, certain strains of which can cause precancerous cervical lesions or cancer.

The researchers, from the Fox Chase Cancer Centre in the US, asked women who had been diagnosed with precancerous cervical lesions to complete a questionnaire giving details of their perceived levels of stress during the previous month and whether or not they had experienced any stressful events during their lifetime, such as a divorce or loss of a family member.

They found that daily stress appeared to be linked to an increased risk of cervical cancer and hypothesised that stress may affect immune function and reduce a woman's ability to fight off HPV.

However, no such link was found between cervical cancer risk and past major life events.

Commenting on the findings, which are published in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine, study author Dr Carolyn Fang 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," the expert continued.

"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."

Dr Joanna Peak, Cancer Research UK science information officer, commented: "We already know that an effective immune response against certain forms of human papillomavirus (HPV) can guard against cervical cancer - this knowledge helped to spearhead the development of cervical cancer vaccines targeting this virus.

"This small study does not provide conclusive evidence that a stressful life directly suppresses the immune system and increases the risk of cervical cancer. More work would be needed before we know if there is a relationship between stress levels and the ability to fight HPV infection.

"It's important for women to remember that cervical screening can detect early cell changes caused by HPV infection before they develop into cancer."