Can Stress Increase Your Chances of Cancer?

Can Stress Increase Your Chances of Cancer?


What is stress?

Stress is the body’s response to physical, mental or emotional pressure. It triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response, releasing adrenaline, cortisol and other hormones. Adrenaline causes the heart rate and blood pressure to rise, and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, triggers an increase in sugars, or glucose, in the bloodstream. Your brain is more alert and your body is prepared to protect itself.

Stress is normal and is helpful in small doses. Short-term stress helps you focus and manage difficult situations, and subsides as soon as the event passes. Hormone levels, heart rate, blood pressure and sugar levels almost immediately return to normal.

Conversely, long-term or chronic stress is damaging and can put your health at risk. When you have chronic stress, your body stays in a nearly constant state of heightened alertness, even if there is no danger. Chronic stress puts continued pressure on the body for a long time, and can cause a range of symptoms and increase the risk of developing illnesses.

Does stress cause cancer?

While there is insufficient evidence to conclude that chronic stress causes cancer, there are suggestions that being in a constant state of stress is a risk factor for cancer and its progression.

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, there are three cancer risk factors linked to stress:

  • Your immune system defends your body against infections and diseases. Stress can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to diseases, including cancer.
  • Stress can alter the levels of certain hormones in your body and put you at greater risk of developing cancer.
  • Stress may lead to unhealthy behaviours such as overeating, smoking and heavy drinking, all of which increase cancer risk.

Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor of General Oncology and Behavioural Science and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson, says “stress has a profound impact on how your body’s systems function,” and “makes your body more hospitable to cancer”.

Ankur Parikh, DO, Medical Director of Precision Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America(CTCA), agrees. “Chronic stress creates something of a perfect storm where precancerous cells can grow and flourish”. He says “everyone, including patients, should do what they can to change their lifestyle to reduce stress, which may help to improve their overall health and lower their risk of certain cancers”.

How to reduce stress

Chronic stress may arise from situations that last for a long time with no definite end points. Examples include caring for a sick loved one, dealing with a long stint of unemployment, facing financial difficulties, working in high-pressure jobs, and being in challenging relationships.

It may not be possible to address the source of chronic stress, but there are a number of ways to reduce stress levels and improve your well-being.

  • Understanding the signs and symptoms. If you can recognise the signs of your body’s response to stress, you will be better able to manage them. These may include difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol intake, being easily angered or cranky, overeating, feeling depressed and having low energy.
  • Speaking to friends and family. They can provide emotional support and practical help, and remind you that you are not alone.
  • Identifying triggers. Knowing your triggers of stress can help you to develop coping and management strategies, which may involve reducing exposure. For example, you may wish to avoid discussing a topic which is distressing to you unnecessarily.
  • Exercising regularly. Physical activity increases the body’s production of endorphins, which make you happier and reduce stress. “If you already have a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps per day, you’re probably already hitting the minimum exercise targets”, says Professor Timothy Olds, from the Health Sciences School of the University of South Australia.
  • Trying mindfulness. Mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery, and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.
  • Getting adequate sleep. A full night of sleep is essential to proper immune function, and “getting eight hours of sleep each night is a great defence against stress” according to Dr Cohen. It is also recommended that you set regular times for going to sleep and waking up, and avoid caffeine, eating, and intense physical activity in the hours before bed.

    Catherine has been volunteering with Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre since 2017, and joined Solaris Cancer Care as a blog writer in early August 2020. She lost both her father and her husband to cancer, and the experiences changed her life. Catherine developed a passion for researching all matters relating to cancer during her husband’s fight, and is keen to continue building on her knowledge and using it to help others.