Hrönn Harðardóttir works as a pulmonologist at Landspítali University Hospital, where she is involved in the care of patients diagnosed with lung cancer. After completing her specialist training, she has concentrated on improving the research process for suspected lung cancer. It is fitting, therefore, that alongside her work as a doctor, Hrönn is now involved in doctoral research at the University of Iceland evaluating the stress response in patients diagnosed with lung cancer. Hrönn wants to find out whether the stress response affects the development of the disease. There is no doubt about the importance of this kind of research, because knowledge is the essential foundation of progress in all fields, says Hrönn.
Lung cancer is a very serious disease and sadly the survival rates are not high. Fortunately, lung cancer has become less common in Iceland as smoking has become less prevalent. Research shows that lung cancer is strongly linked to smoking tobacco. According to figures from the Icelandic Cancer Society, just over 170 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in Iceland each year, around 80 men and just over 90 women.
Important to take care of mental wellbeing
Hrönn, who is passionate about improving the wellbeing and prognosis of all patients, says that this is a forward-thinking study of 130 patients who were diagnosed with lung cancer at Landspítali University Hospital between 2015 and 2018. She says that this doctoral project is an important contribution to research into the consequences of mental distress and the effect that emotions have on a person's health.
"The findings may further reinforce the importance of looking after the mental wellbeing of patients in this situation as well as their physical health. We are looking at stress responses in patients diagnosed with lung cancer, their predictive factors and their impact on the development of the disease and survival rates. Data has been gathered on mental wellbeing, stress and the physiological manifestations of stress before and after the lung cancer diagnoses, as well as histopathological factors."
Hrönn says that in order to provide appropriate support for this patient group, it is essential to acquire a better and deeper understanding of how patients feel and how stress can affect the progression of the disease.
Diagnosis causes extreme acute stress
The initial findings show that people diagnosed with lung cancer experience extreme acute stress. "Wellbeing at the time of referral, a history of mental distress, and relations with healthcare professionals and family members are all significant predictive factors for the severity of the stress response to lung cancer diagnosis. The research findings also point to a link between stress at diagnosis referral and an increase in stress hormone reception in the cancerous cells themselves. We are looking at whether that then affects the progression of the disease and patient survival rates."
The back story to this research is that Hrönn met Unnur Anna Valdimarsdóttir, professor at the Centre of Public Health Sciences, just over 8 years ago. Unnur Anna was then presenting her newly published article on the risk of serious health outcomes following cancer diagnosis, particularly lung cancer. Their conversation sparked the idea for this research project, which was later awarded funding from the Icelandic Centre for Research. This enabled the two women to begin the research, with Unnur Anna supervising Hrönn for this project.