The link between trauma and autoimmune disease — a personal tale

Do you know anyone who experienced childhood emotional neglect/trauma and then, later, got sick from cancer or some other autoimmune disease? Or are you aware of people who suffered medical trauma or an accident and then, after a while, got seriously sick? Is it just bad luck or is there a link between trauma and serious illness?

The research says the link is evident. A 2009 study from the National Institute of Health cites previous studies in drawing a connection between childhood neglect/trauma and the onset of autoimmune illness later in life. It reads: “Childhood traumatic stress increased the likelihood of hospitalization with a diagnosed autoimmune disease decades into adulthood. These findings are consistent with recent biological studies on the impact of early life stress on subsequent inflammatory responses.”

And while, anecdotally, I know of several people who’ve endured injuries and trauma from accidents and then been diagnosed with cancer, the research doesn’t draw a direct link between trauma and this dreaded autoimmune disease. And at the same time, mainstream research doesn’t rule out a link between the two. It is possible that an emotional jolt can throw the body into a tailspin, making it vulnerable to autoimmune diseases.

Just to be clear, autoimmune illnesses occur when your immune system attacks your own healthy cells, tissues and organs. There are 60-70 known autoimmune illnesses, and many — like cancer — are a leading cause of death.

Bestselling writer Dr. Gabor Maté writes in his book When the Body Says No, “Physiologically, emotions are…electrical, chemical and hormonal discharges of the human nervous system. Emotions influence — and are influenced by — the functioning of our major organs, the integrity of our immune defences and the workings of the many circulating biological substances that help govern the body’s physical states. When emotions are repressed…this inhibition disarms the body’s defences against illness.

He says that in some people, our body’s defence systems go awry, “becoming the destroyers of health rather than its protectors.” A common trait among those Maté treated is an inability to say no.  The underlying repression of true feelings is an ever-present health factor, he says.

Lynda and her four daughters made a two-hour drive to get to my wedding in 1990.

I’m going to tell you about my friend Lynda, whose death at 38 still seems so unfair. I met her through her husband who suggested I go for a visit. “She’s stuck at home with three kids and I’m sure you two would have lots to talk about.”

He was right. I was unmarried and single and Lynda gave me a vicarious insight into motherhood. We’d sit at her dining table, drinking tea and eating homemade cookies. If a child was bleeding, she’d have to find a bandaid. If a fight erupted, a stern word would settle the dispute. When not pregnant — she ended up giving birth to seven babies — Lynda worked as a registered nurse in the maternity ward. She was around infants 24/7, and was completely happy with that. The trouble came with the last birth. The infant, a boy, was healthy but Lynda told me later the delivery was bad. She had bleeding that nearly took her life. Later, she and the doctor agreed this would be her last pregnancy.

A few months later, Lynda began noticing issues with her eyesight. Things became fuzzy at times. Then numbness crept into her legs. She went to the doctor and received a diagnosis, one that she kept to herself for a couple months — Christmas was coming and she wanted her household to be full of laughter, not dampened by the knowledge she had multiple sclerosis. Her body was attacking itself, eating away at the tissues around her brain and nerves. I had another friend who was in a wheelchair with MS, and she’d lived with it for 30 years. I think Lynda’s downward spiral shocked everyone. When I saw her in hospital I couldn’t help but cry at her bedside. She lamented how much she missed her children even though they had seen her that morning. Dementia had robbed her of her short-term memory. Lynda died in May, six months after the diagnosis.

Twenty years later, I still miss Lynda. I saw her oldest daughter a few years ago. She contacted me through Facebook and invited me for tea. So like her mom. The eldest child, a boy, followed in his mother’s footsteps and became a nurse. Many of Lynda’s children now are parents themselves. It’s a shame she’s not around to see their joy.


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