Wendy Wu ’22
On the morning of September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) collapsed. Within minutes, first responders arrived on the scene. Amidst the debris and smothering dust, they got to work, evacuating citizens and heading into the towers to rescue whoever they could. It was truly a display of heroic bravery and compassion, but unfortunately, many of the responders of 9/11 suffered for years from chronic illnesses due to the hazardous environment created by the fall. In particular, there have been reports of uncommonly high incidence of prostate cancer in male responders. Currently, no study has found a physical connection between the increase in prostate cancer and the fall of the WTC. There is, however, data showing a relationship between prostate tumor growth and chronic hyperstimulation of the sympathetic nervous system. Sean Clouston, Assistant Professor of Public Health at Stony Brook Medicine, suspected that re-experiencing the traumatic memories of 9/11 may be the cause of high prostate cancer incidence in responders.
Clouston studied 6,857 male WTC responders living on Long Island, NY, and who were being monitored at a clinical center. Diagnosis of prostate cancer and severity were assessed along with PTSD symptoms. Researchers asked patients to rate the extent to which they were bothered by 17 PTSD symptoms on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). Clouston and his team focused on five symptoms: “being bothered by disturbing memories, dreams, reliving the stressful experience, reminders of the event, and having a physical reaction to the reminders.” From this study, Clouston found a positive correlation between prostate cancer diagnosis and old age, as well as increasing severity of PTSD symptoms.
For years, researchers have tried to link certain carcinogens or environmental factors to the increased illnesses in WTC first responders. Clouston is one of the first to try to link a psychiatric condition with the incidence of prostate cancer. While animal studies have shown that the nervous system directly affects the prostate gland, human studies have been, understandably, limited. Clouston’s work could inspire new ways of looking at the causes of prostate cancer in traumatized populations, and perhaps suggest a way of early prevention.
 S. Clouston, et al., Risk factors for incident prostate cancer in a cohort of world trade center responders. BMC Psychiatry 19, (2019). doi:10.1186/s12888-019-2383-1
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