It’s about thirty years since I started saying that stress could be a major cause of cancer, or at least an exacerbating factor. About that time, I found out what stress does to your guts and it’s pretty dramatic. Stress can change the pH of your intestines by a lot, make them more alkaline, completely wreck the balance of your normal bacterial population and leave you more open to pathogens like Salmonella and Shigella. At the same time, turning your guts alkaline whacks your Lactobacilli which are your best defence against a lot of nasty squirt-bugs and even if you don’t get a squirt-bug, the meddled-with bacteria might decide it’s time to leave en masse.
There is nothing physically external happening to your body in this case – your brain is doing it all. In non-science terms: Stress is making your brain panic and fiddle around with hormone levels and that cascades into all sorts of cellular changes while the rest of the body tries to work out what the hell the admin department wants it to do. Just like in most big companies now.
In that situation, a precancerous cell (we all have them, all the time) has the ideal opportunity to turn cancerous and a benign tumour (a lot of us have those and don’t know, and never will because they stay small and benign) has the chance to metastasize.
When you are stressed, your immune system is running about looking for a threat that isn’t there. It’s just your brain sending out ‘Panic!’ messages.
A short burst of stress isn’t dangerous. Precancerous cells aren’t lurking, waiting for their chance. It’s a lottery – if the precancer turns to cancer while your immune system is distracted, it has a chance to grow. If it turns when the immune system is merely prowling, then it gets slapped down hard.
Sure, some will still get past that system, even if you’re cooler than a penguin’s feet. Other external causes – radiation, virus infection, many more – can cause so many cancer cells to appear at once that the immune system has no chance to stop them all. It only takes one big cancer to kill you.
There’s not much you can do about radiation other than coat yourself in lead, and lead’s toxic too so that won’t really help. You could avoid viruses by becoming a hermit and living halfway up a mountain in a cave – but viruses can have animal vectors too.
There’s not even much you can do about airborne particulates. Even if the oil runs out, someone will revive the old steam-powered cars and run them on coal or wood.
One thing you can do is to say ‘Oh what the hell, I can’t do anything about those things so I’m not going to worry about any of them’ and that stress release will improve your chances of staying non-lumpy.
It does not guarantee you’ll be forever lumpless, nothing can guarantee that. Sometimes, when cells divide, they simply get it wrong and there are millions of them in you. Most of the time a passing lymphocyte gets its taser out and deals with them. Once in a while, one goes unnoticed. No point worrying about this because there is absolutely nothing you can avoid as a ’cause’. There is no ’cause’, it’s just bad luck. Worrying about it actually makes it more likely to happen.
Stress is often seen as a cop-out. ‘Oh, he’s off work with stress, can’t take the pace, eh?’ but stress has real physical effects.
I know a few people who will read about an illness, convince themselves they have it and produce real symptoms when there is nothing wrong with them at all. Yes, they are stupid to read that stuff but psychosomatic illnesses can feel very real to those experiencing them. Sometimes I loan those people micriobiological disease catalogues out of a benevloent sense of malevolence and because it really is incredibly funny.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a psychosomatic illness but can I be sure? I do have a lot of books about diseases here and have read many more – is it possible I subconsciously convinced myself I had one of them? Then ‘recovered’ from something that was never there? Given my determined avoidance of the quacks and shamen of the NHS, I cannot rule it out.
As I have described in the past, it’s not at all hard to induce a psychosomatic effect, as long as you don’t push it too far. All it takes is a steady voice and a gullible drone who already believes in modern medical mythology. Yes, I really have induced chest-tightening, breathlessness and tingling in the extremities in antismoking morons just by talking to them. I have not induced cancer, or at least I didn’t think I had.
Then again, if I sufficiently raised their stress levels over a long enough period, maybe I did.
You know what? I’m not going to worry about it.
Smokers are like that. We don’t worry too much about things. That’s why those who are forced to stop smoking get stressed and often break out in lumps as a result.
I can think of three people off the top of my head who stopped smoking for no other reason than they didn’t want to smoke any more. Nothing to do with health or money or NHS-inspired guilt trips, one day they just lit up and thought ‘Nah’.
They did not become antismokers, they did not suffer any withdrawal at all, no stress, no need for doctors or medication. It was the same as when I gave up train spotting – that was because the real trains were all replaced by faceless maggot trains that looked like a set of carriages running with no engine, all windows were sealed so you couldn’t poke your head out, we weren’t allowed to ride in the guards’ vans any more and all this was long before the smoking ban. It just stopped being fun so I stopped doing it. The smoking ban’s extension to many stations just means I’ll never go back to it.
So it was with those three ex-smokers. They don’t care if you smoke near them, they don’t feel threatened and they don’t hate the smell. They just don’t want to do it any more.
I can also think of three lifelong non-smoking non-drinkers who are all dead now at ages less than my current age (in one case, far less). One died of a brain haemorrhage, one of a heart attack and one of cancer. All were in high-stress jobs, as was I, and working fit to bust, as was I at that time. The heart attack and the brain haemorrage were the reason I thought ‘Whoa, I’m slowing down at work, sod it’. The cancer death came later and was a real surprise. The guy was very, very fit and healthy.
I know some ex-smokers who became antismoking (born-again nonsmokers) but in each and every case, they did not really want to stop. Cost, pressure from family, pressure from the NHS… all but one is dead now. All from cancer.
As a certain minority is fond of saying, ‘Smoke, drink tea, relax’.
I just don’t follow that advice by saying ‘Ras Tafari’ because I don’t have dreadlocks and don’t smoke quite the same rollup contents.
(Firefox updated, spellcheck isn’t working and Whyte and Mackay was on special offer so please excuse any typos.)