Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), cell-mediated immunity, and survival in the context of cancer

Jennifer L. Steel*, Michael Antoni, Ritambhara Pathak, Lisa H. Butterfield, Yoram Vodovotz, Alexandra Savkova, Marsh Wallis, Yisi Wang, Hui Jing, Elizabeth Grammer, Robin Burke, Mya Brady, David A. Geller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Purpose: Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been shown to be associated with increased risk of mortality. The biobehavioral mechanisms linking adverse events and survival in cancer patients remain unclear. The aims of the study were to: (1) examine the rates and types of early adverse events in patients diagnosed with cancer; (2) investigate the association of adverse events with circulating cytokines, representing immune status of the patient; and (3) test whether immune markers mediated the association between early adverse events and survival while adjusting for other factors that are associated with immunity (e.g., fatigue) and survival (e.g., depression). Patients and Methods: The patients were recruited from an outpatient oncology clinic. Patients were administered a battery of questionnaires including the Traumatic Events Survey and the Center for Epidemiological Studies-Depression scale. Blood was collected and serum levels of cytokines were assessed to characterize immune status. Descriptive statistics, Mann-Whitney U tests and Cox regression were performed to address study aims. Results: Of the 408 patients, 66% reported at least one ACE. After adjusting for demographic, disease-specific factors, and psychological/behavioral factors; having had a major upheaval between parents during childhood or adolescence was associated with poorer survival [β = −0.702, HR = 0.496, p = 0.034]. Lower levels of interleukin-2 (IL-2) explained, in part, the link between this early adverse event and poorer survival as when IL-2 was entered into the model, a major upheaval between one's parents and survival was no longer significant [β = −0.612, HR = 0.542, p = 0.104]. Conclusion: Having experienced an ACE was associated with lower IL-2 levels—a growth factor for anti-inflammatory T-regulatory lymphocytes—central in contemporary immunotherapy, as well as poorer survival in those diagnosed with cancer. Since lower IL-2 levels also explained, in part, the link between the ACE involving parental upheaval and survival, there is support for a psychoneuroimmunological model of disease course in this vulnerable population.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)566-572
Number of pages7
JournalBrain, Behavior, and Immunity
StatePublished - Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Adverse childhood experiences
  • Cancer
  • Immunity
  • Trauma


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