The Link Between Stress and Cancer

cancer risk

Whether we like it or not, stress is a part of our lives.  How we cope with this stress can have a significant impact on our health.  Stress can cause a number of health problems from anxiety to high blood pressure to heart attacks.  New research is now looking at whether stress can lead to the development of cancer.

At the present time, no research has shown a direct link between stress and cancer.  However, there is some compelling research that shows that perhaps there is an indirect link between stress and cancer and how the cancer progresses. Studies have shown that stress may indirectly promote cancer by weakening the immune system or by helping the cancer causing cells to grow.

It has been found that stress has a negative effect on the immune system.  Typically, a healthy body can identify abnormal cells and kill them off before they form a tumor.  However, a stressed immune system is weakened and lacks this normal functioning. This makes it more susceptible to cancer development and progression.

Additionally, stress causes a person to release high levels of the hormones cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline).  Multiple studies have shown that these hormones have shown to make cancer cells resistant to death (specifically breast and prostate cancer cells). Therefore, increased levels of these hormones can help cancer cells grow.  This is an important fact as it could make the cancer cells resistant to treatment. Research has shown that stress has a bigger impact on cancer cell growth and spread as opposed to cancer development.   This is supported by a study that was published in the Journal of Clinical Research that showed that adrenaline directly supported tumor growth and spread.

In addition to stress affecting the immune system and helping cancer causing cells grow, prolonged stress also leads to individuals adopting unhealthy behaviors.  These behaviors include smoking, drinking, overeating and recreational drug use.  All of these behaviors are known factors that increase the risk of developing cancer.

So the bottom line is that it may be time to consider de-stressing a little.  Reina Marino, M.D. has worked with the American Cancer Society to develop a stress reduction class for cancer patients and survivors.  However, these techniques can be used by anyone looking to decrease their stress levels.  The techniques that Dr. Marino mentions include:

1.            Deep Breathing – breathing from your belly rather than your chest will provide increased oxygen to your bloodstream. This will help you to control your emotions and stay calm.

2.            Mediation – this can be done on your own or in a group setting. Mediation calms your body by focusing on one thing, whether it is an object, a phrase, or your breathing. The most common way to practice mediation is to pick a saying that you can co-ordinate with your breathing.

3.            Imagery – involves creating a mental image that can help to soothe and relax you. Try to use all of your senses to enhance the mental picture.

4.            Mindfulness – involves focusing on the present.  Take time to enjoy your surroundings ~ take time to “smell the roses”.

Even though a direct link between stress and cancer has yet to be found, stress is known to cause a number of health problems.  It’s not a bad idea to try and decrease your stress levels to minimize the risk of these other health problems.  And who knows, indirectly, you may be helping to fight off cancer too.