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Does Stress Cause Cancer?

Daily pressures and anxieties won’t cause the disease, but they can make you more vulnerable to it
Written by 
Amanda MacMillan
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 
Updated on: 
July 17, 2015

We live busy, fast-paced lives, as spouses, parents, caregivers, neighbors and overworked employees—maybe all of the above. Which means that stress is pretty much inevitable. But while we know it’s unhealthy, is stress really bad enough to cause cancer?

Stress Doesn’t Cause Cancer...

Scientists have long wondered if there’s a connection between psychological stress (marital problems, money troubles or the death of a loved one, for example) and cancer—a group of diseases that occur when healthy cells in the body mutate and multiply out of control. Although some studies show an association between stressful life events and the development of cancer, no strong cause-and-effect relationship has been found so far. For example, a 1999 study published in the British Medical Journal, found that women who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer weren’t any more likely to have experienced a significantly stressful life event in the past five years than those diagnosed with a benign lump. A review of 29 previous studies, published that same year, also found no evidence that “adverse life events,” such as bereavement, caused breast cancer.

...But It Can Hurt Our Immune Systems...

What stress can do, though, is take a toll on our natural defenses against illness and disease. When we get stressed out, our bodies release hormones that increase blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. Physiologically, this preps our body for a “fight or flight” response and, in the short term, is useful in fending off theoretical attackers. When stress becomes chronic, however, these spiking levels can damage our immune system and leave us vulnerable to disease. (Keep in mind that viruses and bacteria cause up to 20 percent of cancers, including cervical cancer, stomach cancer and certain lymphomas.) Plus, being stressed can lead us to seek comfort from things we know aren't good for us, like cigarettes, alcohol and too much food—things that are known to increase cancer risk.

...And It Can Make Cancer Worse

Several animal studies have shown that ongoing stressful situations can cause cancer tumors to grow more rapidly or to metastasize (spread from one organ to another), an indication that for someone who’s gotten a cancer diagnosis, too much tension can make matters worse. Researchers don’t fully understand what's happening, but they suspect that stress hormones help create an environment in the body that’s more conducive to excessive cell growth.

A gene called ATF3, which is activated in our cells when we’re facing stress, is another potential mechanism. In 2013, scientists found a link between the activation of the stress gene in immune-system cells to the spread of breast cancer to other organs. Women expressing the stress gene in immune-system cells had worse breast cancer outcomes, and mice with the gene experienced much more rapid and widespread metastasis to their lungs than mice without it.

Responding to Stress in a Healthy Way

If only there were a magic wand that could—poof!—make deadlines, commitments and anxieties disappear. But you can control how you react and find more effective ways to cope. Learning healthy strategies to channel your stress, whether it’s through breathing and meditation, exercise and yoga, listening to music, journaling or spending time on a hobby, can lessen the harmful effects of stress. If you’ve already been diagnosed with cancer, managing stress can help you ward off depression and anxiety so you can tackle your treatment (and recovery!), and it might even reduce the chances that your cancer will spread.

More: 8 Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Cancer

American Cancer Society
Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (January 2010)
Journal of Clinical Investigation (July 2013)
National Cancer Institute
Stanford School of Medicine
University of California, Los Angeles
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
About the author 
Amanda MacMillan is a health writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared in Prevention, Runner's World, Health and Whole Living magazines.