SATURDAY, April 2 (HealthDay News) -- Reducing cancer patients' stress may benefit their health, a new study finds.

Researchers investigated whether chronic stress associated with cancer diagnosis accelerated shortening of telomeres. These structures on the ends of chromosomes protect the chromosome from deteriorating, breaking apart or joining with other chromosomes, which can lead to mutations.

The investigators also wanted to see if counseling sessions designed to lower stress and improve quality of life affected telomere length.

The study included 31 women with cervical cancer who were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group received usual care along with six counseling sessions by phone while the other group received usual care without counseling.

Biological samples were collected from both groups at the start of the study and again after four months. The findings are to be presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) in Orlando, Fla.

"Improved quality of life and reduced stress response was associated with changes in telomere length," Dr. Edward Nelson, division chief of hematology/oncology at the University of California, Irvine, said in an AACR news release.

It's important to remember that this was "an exploratory and preliminary" study, he added.

Still, "there is no doubt that offering psychological services has the potential to improve quality of life and outcomes of patients. After all, making patients feel better should be an outcome that a cancer team should want to have, but whether we can draw conclusions or make recommendations about the capacity of a behavioral intervention to modulate telomere length remains an open question," Nelson said.

Experts note that research presented at meetings has not been subject to the rigorous review that precedes publication in a medical journal.

More information

The American Cancer Society has more about the emotional and mental impacts of cancer.