Background. There is evidence that depression impairs natural killer cell activity (NKA); this could have implications for anti-tumour immunity. Our aim was to examine the role of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis in suppressing NKA in a population of patients with early breast cancer, screened for depression. Secondary aims were to study the relationship between psychological, endocrine and immune variables and baseline tumour characteristics.
Methods. A cross-sectional population of female patients (n=55) with early breast cancer was sampled prior to primary surgery. Structured interview and psychometric instruments measured psychological distress. Flow cytometry was used to enumerate NK cells and lymphocytes were cryopreserved for use in a 51Cr-release assay, to estimate NKA. Midnight and three early morning saliva samples were collected to measure free cortisol levels. Tumour characteristics were obtained from hospital laboratory data.
Results. A high rate of psychological morbidity (40%) was observed in the population. NKA was reduced in those with past or current psychiatric illness compared to those without (344 v. 553 LU20 and 455 v. 569 LU20 respectively, p<0·05 for both). Cortisol was not related to psychological status but was modestly positively correlated to NKA. A positive correlation was observed between the Fighting Spirit subscale of the Mental Adjustment to Cancer Scale and tumour size (r=0·383, p=0·012)
Conclusions. Our data support the evidence that psychological morbidity is associated with immune dysfunction; however, the most obvious candidate mediator of this effect, the HPA axis, does not appear responsible for this effect. Possible reasons for this are discussed.