Abused and neglected youngsters face greater cancer risk in later life

People neglected as children are at a greater risk from skin cancer as an adult, according to a new study.

Researchers found that skin cancer patients whose childhood included periods of neglect or maltreatment were more susceptible to cancer when they faced a major stressful event.

The findings suggest that such experiences during a person’s youth can set a lower level of immune response for life, which in turn might make them more susceptible to the kind of cancers that are often successfully fought by the immune system – the so-called immunogenic tumours.

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While the research focused on patients with a fairly benign form of skin cancer – basal cell carcinoma (BCC) – the findings appear as a warning for patients to be more vigilant in concerns over their health for the rest of their lives.

The study is the latest in three decades of research linking stress and immunity that have been led by investigators at Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioural Medicine Research (IBMR) in the United States.

Christopher Fagundes, first author of the paper and a postdoctoral fellow at the IBMR, said: “This is the first study to show that troubled early parental experiences, in combination with a severe life event in the past year, predict local immune responses to a BCC tumour.

“This expands the growing evidence that the consequences of early parental experiences extend well beyond childhood.”

Basal cell tumours are considered the most common form of skin cancer, and much less dangerous than squamous cell carcinomas or melanomas.

Nearly half of all BCC patients will have an additional tumour form within three years of their first one.

The researchers looked at 91 men and women who had previously had a BCC.

The results showed that BCC patients who had a severe, stressful life event in the last year, and who experienced neglect or maltreatment from their mothers as children, had a substantial drop in their immune response to the tumours.

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Dr Fagundes said: “Those in the top 25 per cent of maltreatment by their mothers saw a 350 per cent reduction in immunity compared to those in the bottom 25 per cent of maltreatment.”

He added that maltreatment or neglect from the father showed a 140 per cent drop in immunity when the top 25 per cent were compared to the bottom 25 per cent.

Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, co-author of the paper and a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State, said: “This means that for people who have had an early history of vulnerability and who are currently going through a stressful period, they have another reason to watch their health and be especially vigilant.”

The findings were published in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

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