Stress and Tumor Associated Inflammation

Supervising Faculty:

Jennifer Steel



Jennifer Steel
3459 Fifth Avenue
Kaufman Building Suite 601
(412) 692-2041

Area of Research:  Health Psychology/Medicine/Public Health/Clinical Psychology


Description of Research:

In 2010, over 11.5 million people were living with cancer in the United States and over 500,000 new cases are expected to be diagnosed each year. The life threatening and unpredictable course of cancer makes it a particularly stressful life experience.  Stress may be defined as when the demands being placed on an individual are perceived as threatening or harmful and exceed the resources available to manage the stressor.  Decades of research have shown that stress is associated with poor health behaviors (e.g., sleep disturbances, substance use, high fat diet and lack of exercise) as well as increased risk of morbidity and mortality. It is not known if it is the stress or maladaptive health behaviors contributing to increased risk of mortality and what the mechanisms underlying the links between stress and health outcomes.  The goal of this prospective study which will examine the mechanistic pathways linking chronic stress and engagement in maladaptive health behaviors with disease progression in people diagnosed with hepatobiliary carcinoma.  The Pittsburgh Mind Body Center’s Shared Psychobiological Model, which will include a life course perspective, will be utilized as a framework to assess how demographic factors, exposure to early adverse events, and optimism contribute to, or buffer, perceived stress after a diagnosis of cancer.  We will also explore mediating (e.g., illness perception) and moderating factors (e.g., coping, social support) linking stress and health behaviors and how they contribute to biomarkers of inflammation and disease progression in patients diagnosed with hepatobiliary carcinoma.  Chronic stress and poor health behaviors have been shown by our team, and others, to be associated with a cascade of neurobiological events including activation of the central nervous system and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis resulting in elevations of pro-inflammatory cytokines.  We plan to examine the role of biomarkers of inflammation such cytokines as well as novel biomarkers (high mobility group box-1; HMGB1) as they have been shown to be predictive of disease progression (e.g., tumor growth, development of metastases, and poorer prognosis) across several cancer types, including hepatobiliary carcinoma.  The study will begin to elucidate the biobehavioral pathways linking stress and health behaviors with disease progression in the context of cancer. 


Duties of Students:

The student would also have the opportunity to attend a weekly tumor conference, learn about data management using SPSS, and utilize data from this study for writing papers for publication and/or honor’s thesis.   


Additional Requirements:

  • Grade point average of 3.0 or higher for directed research
  • A psychology GPA of 3.5 or higher for honor’s research
  • At least 12 credits in Psychology (including PSY 0035: Research Methods)
  • A one-year commitment is requested


Terms offered: fall, spring and summer


Number of Students: 2