Childhood adversity increases vulnerability for behavioral symptoms and immune dysregulation in women with breast cancer

Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Mar;30 Suppl(Suppl):S149-62. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2012.05.014. Epub 2012 Jun 1.


Women respond differentially to the stress-associated with breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, with some women experiencing more intense and/or sustained behavioral symptoms and immune dysregulation than others. Childhood adversity has been identified to produce long-term dysregulation of stress response systems, increasing reactivity to stressors encountered during adulthood. This study determined whether childhood adversity increased vulnerability for more intense and sustained behavioral symptoms (fatigue, perceived stress, and depressive symptoms), poorer quality of life, and greater immune dysregulation in women (N=40) with breast cancer. Evaluation was after breast surgery and through early survivorship. Hierarchical linear modeling was used to examine intra-individual and inter-individual differences with respect to initial status and to the pattern of change (i.e. trajectory) of outcomes. At initial assessment, women exposed to childhood emotional neglect/abuse had greater perceived stress, fatigue, depressive symptoms and poorer quality of life, as well as lower natural killer cell activity (NKCA). Although these outcomes improved over time, women with greater childhood emotional neglect/abuse exhibited worse outcomes through early survivorship. No effect was observed on the pattern of change for these outcomes. In contrast, childhood physical neglect predicted sustained trajectories of greater perceived stress, worse quality of life, and elevated plasma IL-6; with no effect observed at initial assessment. Thus, childhood adversity leaves an enduring imprint, increasing vulnerability for behavioral symptoms, poor quality of life, and elevations in IL-6 in women with breast cancer. Further, childhood adversity predisposes to lower NKCA at a critical time when this immune-effector mechanism is most effective at halting nascent tumor seeding.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Aged
  • Anxiety / immunology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • Breast Neoplasms / immunology
  • Breast Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Depression / immunology
  • Depression / psychology
  • Fatigue / immunology
  • Fatigue / psychology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Quality of Life
  • Stress, Psychological / immunology
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires