Can Stress Cause Cancer? – 2020 Updated

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Medically reviewed by Victor Nguyen, PharmD.

Can Stress Cause Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute[1], cancer is a collection of related diseases where usually cells uncontrollably grow and spread throughout the body. Cancer risk may be due to many causes such as genetics, food, radiation, and even stress.  

So does stress result in cancer? While lots of people wonder whether stress really causes cancer, there isn’t a definitive answer. However, stress can still cause negative health conditions and affect our quality of life. Here, in this article, we will point out how cancer and stress are related. 

how does cancer kill you

To begin with, not all kinds of cancer[2] are deadly. However, the ones that are deadly usually undergo the final stage which is metastasis. According to Cancer Research UK[3], cancer may be fatal depending on its stage and the parts of the body where it spreads through. If the cancer is caught at an early stage, there’s a better prognosis compared to those people who discover cancer at a later stage.  

As of now, there are more than 100 kinds of cancer according to NCBI[4]. Many of them are tumors that typically originate from an organ or certain tissues in a body. Tumors begin as a mutation that causes the affected cells to divide uncontrollably. A tumor itself sometimes can be the reason cancer is deadly. For example, a large tumor in the heart can inhibit the organ to work normally and lead to cardiac complications and even death.

More commonly, the more fatal form of cancer is when it spreads to other parts of the body, also referred to as cancer metastasis. According to NCBI[5], this occurs when cancer cells split or break off and make their way into the blood circulation, which disperses to other parts of the body. Certain cancers “metastasize” to certain organs more commonly. For example, colon cancer spread to the liver. Cancer cells can spread to many different body tissues and organs such as bone, blood, lungs, etc.  

Once cancer has spread, the cell invades and starts multiplying in its new location. Here’s where the prognosis worsens. The spread of these new cancer cells can begin to disturb the natural activity of each new organ it invades. if the condition is left untreated, this usually results in major health complications and eventually organ failure and death. 

Chronic Stress

Stress[6] is a natural emotion that a person executes due to unfavorable stimuli from a person’s environment. To begin with, this is not something bad because it serves as a defense mechanism. These stimuli could indicate possible danger to a person. 

Where a person detected a danger from his surroundings, the nerve hormones signal the adrenal gland. After that, the adrenal gland will produce adrenaline and cortisol that result in stress. In response to this stress, a person becomes active and makes the heart beat fast.

Stress typically can manifest as different severities: acute and chronic stress[7]. Acute stress is a type of stress which is short-lived and triggered by simple and usual situations like an argument with friends and family. Chronic stress is a type of stress that is activated for a long period of time which is mainly caused by an abusive environment. 

Impact of Stress on Health

Body stress can affect[8] many functions of the body. A human body can manage stress in tiny quantities, however when the stress appears long-term and this is what you call chronic stress. 

Chronic stress may bring you long term heart problems[9]. The non-sustainable increase in pressure, and the increased levels of stress hormones as well as blood pressure, can truly affect your overall cardiovascular health. The risk of hypertension, heart attack, or stroke may be increased by this long-term continued stress. Throughout the circulatory system, especially in the coronary arteries, chronic stress or repetitive acute stress may also lead to inflammation, and the mechanism is thought to connect stress to a heart attack.

A study from the National Institute of Health[10] shows that chronic stress can result in cancer and can even speed up the metastasis process by activating the release of a neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. This neurotransmitter activates cancer cells, which are released when the body becomes stressed. Studies also show that chronic stress will potentially make the spread of cancer faster. Stress can accelerate the progress of the disease, including ovarian, breast, and colorectal cancer, throughout the body. Stress is a factor that can influence the development and growth of cancer.

Let us talk about cancer and how stress can contribute to its progression.

The relation between Stress and Cancer 

As we discussed, stress can impact our body and health in a variety of ways. Through its impact on the body, stress may play a role in the development and progression of cancer. Some studies have investigated how stress affects people with cancer, from how their cancer progresses to their chances of survival. 

There has been research done on how chronic stress impairs our body’s immune system. The brain uses our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal[11] or HPA axis whenever a stressful event arises, that is the key factor of the reaction to endocrine stress. Surely, this results in higher production of glucocorticoids called steroid hormones, which include cortisol. Cortisol is often referred to as a stress hormone.’

To regulate the immune system and reduce inflammation, glucocorticoids, including cortisol, are essential. Although this is helpful in stressful or threatening circumstances where injury can contribute to greater activation of the immune system, persistent stress may lead to decreased contact between the immune system and the axis of the HPA.

The possible development of various physical and mental health problems, namely chronic fatigue, metabolic diseases, depression, and immune disorders, is already related to this disrupted coordination.

Some studies[12] have shown that stress can have an effect on your cancer outcomes. Chronic stress is a health threat that can lead to an early cardiovascular death, cancer, as well as other illnesses. But somehow it turns clear that even if the stress arises from big life circumstances or from simple problems does not matter. They can also be lethal.

Recent research reveals that psychological illness, even in individuals without signs of heart disease, affects the blood pressure and the movement of the heart. Experts claim that mental stress can lead to sudden death.

Stress and depression are often associated with a greater risk of dying from cancer. As per a recent study, anxiety, and depression tend to be related to the risk of terminal cancer. They observed that those who were in mental distress had a huge 32% risk of dying from cancer sooner on.

Data from laboratory research shows that the capacity of a tumor to develop and propagate may be influenced by stress.  This statement is backed up with an experiment with rodents[13]. The tumor of mice carrying human tumors undergoes metastasis rapidly when given by a stressful situation such as confinement and separation from other mice.  Research in rodents and human laboratory-grown cancer cells has shown that the stress hormone or neurotransmitter norepinephrine is part of the fight-or-flight response of the body.

It’s important to note that even though stress may cause a variety of physical health problems, the true impact on cancer is not completely understood. Current evidence is based on limited models and theories. More research is needed to understand the actual pathways and mechanisms by which stress directly affects cancer. The available evidence suggests that there is definitely a  link between different psychological factors of stress on the risks of cancer incidence and progression. 

How to reduce stress

Being in a stressful situation is not always avoidable but learning to manage and cope with stress can be helpful. These simple things can help you relieve stress that everyone can completely do and aware of however, during those times that they are already under stress, they tend to neglect these basic stress management strategies[14]

Talk to your doctor

During the times when we are experiencing such health conditions, you may want to seek professional advice from a therapist or psychologist. 

Exercises

Stress targets both the psychological and physiological aspects of your body. As we are being affected by stressful situations, this may lead to unhealthy choices such as drinking, smoking, or shutting ourselves inside which leads to a poor lifestyle that can be a detriment to our overall health. The American Heart Association touts the benefit of exercise, which doesn’t only divert stress but also helps the body to cope up with unhealthy habits and strengthen the immune system. People with a healthy and strong immune system have lower chances of experiencing the risk of cancer than those people who don’t. 

Meditation

You can increase awareness of yourself and your surroundings through meditation. Doing this helps you be in control of your thoughts and emotions, which can help you manage your stress. Being able to concentrate on things around you is an effective way of reducing stress which can be improving the quality of life. Stress reduction[15] is a common result that people achieve through intensive meditation. 

Conclusion

Most of us are dealing with lots of situations these days. Due to the fast phase of society, some find it really hard to deal with the things around us and the worst is that not everyone can keep up. This results in stress. Although stress is not really proven to cause cancer. Studies that had been conducted at some point show relativity information that can’t be ignored. This causes confusion and worries to people. By just simply thinking about it would lead to stress as you read evidently up until here. However, in the end, a good healthy habit will help in avoiding it and that’s a significant truth. 

F.A.Q

Can stress cause cancer? 

The effect of stress on cancer is still unclear. However, clinical evidence has suggested that stress is a possible risk factor for cancer.

How stress impacts the process of cancer metastasis?

Stress may cause an imbalance of hormones. Certain hormones can lead to rapid cancer growth, thus possibly increasing the risk of the cancer spreading.

What are the warning signs of stress?

That stress symptoms start from small things like dizziness, Grinding your teeth to the worst-case scenario which is trembling, exhaustion, and shaking. 

What are the main causes of stress?

Stress is a natural defense mechanism of the body. This is due to the unfavorable incidence that would cause negative stimuli response. Which product hormones trigger the adrenaline that would exhaust an individual which would even result in an unhealthy lifestyle. 

Is stress really connected to cancer?

While there’s no definitive answer, many studies suggest that there is a link between stress and the risk of cancer. More studies are needed to confirm the actual pathways and mechanisms by which stress impacts cancer..

Is there a cure for cancer?

At the moment, there are no curative treatments for cancer. However, many treatments are available to help manage the cancer. Some treatments even make the symptoms and signs go away completely, which is called remission. Though the symptoms are gone, the cancer may still be present. po. 


+ 1 sources

Health Canal avoids using tertiary references. We have strict sourcing guidelines and rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic researches from medical associations and institutions. To ensure the accuracy of articles in Health Canal, you can read more about the editorial process here

  1. What Is Cancer? National Cancer Institute. Published February 9, 2015. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/what-is-cancer
  2. How can cancer kill you? | Dying with cancer | Cancer Research UK. Cancerresearchuk.org. Published 2019. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/coping/dying-with-cancer/how-can-cancer-kill-you
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  4. Cooper GM. The Development and Causes of Cancer. Nih.gov. Published 2020. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9963/
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  7. ‌Stress Effects on the Body. Stress Effects on the Body. https://www.apa.org. Published 2018. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress/index
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  10. ‌Reiche EMV, Nunes SOV, Morimoto HK. Stress, depression, the immune system, and cancer. The Lancet Oncology. 2004;5(10):617-625. doi:10.1016/s1470-2045(04)01597-9
  11. ‌Chida Y, Hamer M, Wardle J, Steptoe A. Do stress-related psychosocial factors contribute to cancer incidence and survival? Nature Clinical Practice Oncology. 2008;5(8):466-475. doi:10.1038/ncponc1134
  12. ‌Senft D, Ronai ZA. Adaptive Stress Responses During Tumor Metastasis and Dormancy. Trends in Cancer. 2016;2(8):429-442. doi:10.1016/j.trecan.2016.06.004
  13. ‌Healthy ways to handle life’s stressors. Healthy ways to handle life’s stressors. https://www.apa.org. Published 2019. Accessed December 25, 2020. https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-tips
  14. Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2014;174(3):357. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018

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