National Domestic Violence Awareness Month: A Startling Consequence of Early Abuse

Clearly growing up with abusive parents is no great shakes no matter how you look at it.

Early abuse has been correlated with later-life depression, stunted brain development, anxiety, alcohol abuse–and I’m just getting started.

But, even knowing how damaging early childhood abuse is, a study caught my eye that surprised me, and brought home abuse’s devastating potential in a new way.

It seems as if early childhood abuse can weaken the body’s immune system and make it more susceptible to skin cancer, specifically basal cell carcinoma (BCC), the most common type of skin cancer.

In June, 2012, researchers published their findings in the Archives of General Psychiatry in an article entitled “Basal Cell Carcinoma:Stressful Life Events and the Tumor Environment.”

Researchers took a 3-pronged approach.

First they studied 91 subjects with basal cell carcinoma, and administered the Childhood Experience of Care and Abuse Questionnaire which assesses parental neglect and antipathy, physical abuse, and sexual abuse up to the age of 17. This was to discover if the patients had experienced parental abuse, and, if so, to what extent.

As a second component to the study, the researchers then assessed patients with the Life and Events Difficulty Schedule, created by Brown and Harris, which is merely (as you’d figure) a measurement of the stressfulness of various life events. to found out if they had experienced a stressful event within the previous year. (‘Stressful Events’ qualifiers included divorce, job loss, or death of a loved one.)

Finally they biopsied the tumors and measured the tissue levels of mRNA located on the immune cells (simply, mRNA just means Messenger RNA, which is a form of RNA that codes for amino acids. This measurement  indicates immune response to the BCC tumors, and it seems we can all wrap our heads around that technical term.).

Armed with their scales and immunology reports, the researchers looked for an interaction between parental abuse and a stressful life event in the year preceding in order to predict immune response to the BCC.

And, sure enough, the relationship existed. Factoring out age, gender, history of depression–even current depression–those who had had a stressful life event within the past year, if that was confounded by emotional mistreatment by a parent, had a significantly poorer immune response to the tumors than those who ‘just’ got a lousy hand the year before.

The study states,

“Among BCC patients who had experienced a severe life event within the past year, those who were emotionally maltreated by their mothers (P = .007) or fathers (P = .02) as children had a poorer immune response to the BCC tumor. Emotional maltreatment was unrelated to BCC immune responses among those who did not experience a severe life event. Depressive symptoms were not associated with the local tumor immune response.”

It’s a breakthrough study, because if emotional maltreatment at any early age can affect  BCC–well, then, what cancers can’t it effect, some much more difficult to manage to BCC?


David Spiegel, M.D., associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and a psycho-oncologist, told Psychiatric News,

“while basal cell carcinoma is a relatively benign cancer, there is increasing evidence that immune function is crucial in cancer surveillance, especially in regard to the growth of metastases.”

But as in so many studies that find fascinating answers to cleverly posed questions, we’re left here again with an unanswerd question that lies at the very base of all this work and the fascinating findings.

We have progressed light years in our treatment of cancers and our approach to tumors–but a paper like this indicates that undercutting the best of care may be the patient’s early years, spent denigrated, demeaned, disheartened.

What, I’d like to pose to the National Cancer Institute, American Cancer Society, Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Gilbert and Kathryn Mitchell Endowment, who so generously study what do we do now, knowing how damaging early maltreatment is the following:

We don’t need a medicine or a charm or a drug company working over-time to develop something new; we need a systemic change in how parents treat their children, and how we as a society put up with those adults who mis-treat their children.

Is it possible that all the billions of dollars poured into cancer research each year will never achieve all we hope for–because, at the core of the family unit, there is a dissolution that precludes future health?

And, if so, who will put up the funding, and who will dedicate their lives to the research, to making childhood a safe and protected place for our children to inhabit–saving them from multiple diseases down the road, and improving their immunity enough so that they’ll have a fair fight, should cancer beckon them under its devastating wing?

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