Chronic stress impacts breast cancer treatment

Oct. 13, 2021

A new study shows that chronic physiologic “wear and tear” from stress, known as allostatic load, may be associated with a decreased likelihood of cancer treatment completion and with lower overall survival. Research results also suggest allostatic load appeared better than genetic ancestry at predicting chemotherapy completion and overall survival, according to a news release from Ohio State University.

Samilia Obeng-Gyasi, MD, MPH, of The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC – James) presented these findings at the 14th AACR Conference on the Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved, which was held online Oct. 6-8.

Allostatic load is defined scientifically as “wear and tear” on the body caused by lifelong exposure to stressors — such as social isolation, poverty and racism. Elevated allostatic load has been associated with various health problems, such as high blood pressure, increased body mass index, kidney disease, inflammation, arthritis and other conditions.

In this study, Obeng-Gyasi and colleagues in the ECOG-ACRIN Cancer Research Group sought to understand whether allostatic load or genetic ancestry (identified by DNA) impacted patients’ survival and their likelihood of completing chemotherapy. Prior studies suggested that allostatic load and genetic ancestry play a role in poor breast cancer outcomes; however, no studies have looked at both factors at the same time in a study population. This study represents a retrospective review of ECOG-ACRIN E5103, a clinical trial evaluating the inclusion of bevacizumab into adjuvant sequential anthracycline and paclitaxel in patients with lymph node-positive or high-risk lymph node-negative HER2-negative breast cancer.

“We observed that people with a high allostatic load at the beginning of the study had a greater likelihood of stopping chemotherapy early and a higher risk of death,” says Obeng-Gyasi. “In contrast, we did not observe an association between genetic ancestry and survival or chemotherapy completion. This suggests that allostatic load may be better than genetic ancestry at predicting chemotherapy completion and overall survival.”

The researchers analyzed data from the ECOG-ACRIN E5103 phase III clinical trial, one of the first large breast cancer treatment trials to assemble a biorepository and database of patient information, including demographics and DNA, for future research. The trial examined the effect of adding bevacizumab into sequential anthracycline and paclitaxel chemotherapeutic regimens in patients with lymph node-positive or high-risk lymph node-negative HER2-negative breast cancer.

Using genomic analyses and other patient information from the E5103 repository, the researchers examined chronic stress, measured by allostatic load, across three broad categories of genetic ancestry — African, European and other. Among the 348 patients in the analysis, approximately 80% had European ancestry, 10% had African ancestry, and 10% had other ancestry.

Allostatic load was measured in patients in E5103 using biomarkers of the cardiovascular, immune and metabolic systems collected prior to starting treatment. Examples of the biomarkers included body mass index, blood pressure, creatinine and several cytokines.

After adjusting for genetic ancestry, the researchers found that each one-unit increase in allostatic load score was associated with a 15% reduction in the likelihood of completing chemotherapy and a 14% increase in the risk of death.

“These results suggest that long-term exposure to chronic social and environmental stress may contribute to poor outcomes in patients with breast cancer,” says Obeng-Gyasi.

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