Does Stress Cause Cancer?
We live busy, fast-paced lives: as spouses, parents, caregivers, and overworked employees — maybe all of the above.
Which means that stress is pretty much inevitable. While we know chronic stress is 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.
According to the National Cancer Institute, while high levels of stress can cause a number of physical health problems, the evidence that stress causes cancer is weak. Some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, but others have not.
Links between psychological stress and cancer, however, are clear. For example, people under stress may develop certain behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, or drinking alcohol, which increase a person’s risk for cancer. Or someone who has a relative with cancer may have a higher risk for cancer because of a shared inherited risk factor, not because of the stress induced by the family member’s diagnosis.
...But It Can Hurt Out Immune Systems...
There is no doubt among experts, however, that stress takes 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. When stress becomes chronic, however, these spiking levels damages our immune system and leaves 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.)
...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 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 pixie dust to sprinkle over deadlines, financial strain, and anxieties to make them vanish. Many things are out of your control, but you can always manage how you respond to life’s challenges. (Note, learning to respond, rather than react is an artform.) There are many healthy strategies to channel your stress, whether through breathing and meditation, exercise and yoga, listening to music, journaling, or spending time on a hobby, that 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. In fact, a 2019 study from the National Institutes of Health discovered meditation helped some cancer patients reduce anxiety, stress, fatigue, and improve sleep and mood, when used along with standard medical treatment.