Stress is part of your body’s normal reaction to a perceived threat. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can drive you to accomplishing things and help you avoid potentially dangerous situations. But too much stress can have a big impact on your physical and emotional health, leading some experts to take a look at the possible role of stress in the development of cancer. So, can stress cause cancer? The answer isn’t clear yet. Read on to learn about the common theories about the link between cancer and stress, the existing evidence, and how stress might affect existing cancer.

Different types of stress

Before diving into the relationship between stress and cancer, it’s important to understand what stress involves and the different forms in can take. When your brain recognizes something as a possible threat or danger, a combination of nerve and hormone signals are sent to your adrenal glands. In turn, these glands produce hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that kickstart the stress response.

Acute stress

Acute stress is what most people imagine when they talk about stress. It’s typically short-lived and triggered by specific situations.

These might include:

  • needing to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting a car that’s pulled in front of you
  • having an argument with a family member or friend
  • being in traffic that’s causing you to be late to work
  • feeling pressure to meet an important deadline

Acute stress can cause several physical symptoms, including:

  • rapid heart rate
  • increased blood pressure
  • quick breathing
  • muscle tension
  • increased sweating

These effects are usually temporary and resolve once the stressful situation is over.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress happens when your stress response is activated for prolonged periods of time. It can wear you down both physically and emotionally. Examples of things that can lead to chronic stress include:

  • living in a dysfunctional or abusive home situation
  • working a job that you hate
  • having frequent financial trouble
  • living with a chronic illness or caring for a loved one who does

Compared to acute stress, chronic stress can have long-term effects on your physical and emotional health. Over time, chronic stress can contribute to:

  • Heart disease
  • Digestive issues
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Weight gain
  • Sleep problems
  • Difficulties concentrating or remembering things
  • Fertility problems
  • Weakened immune system

Popular theories about stress and cancer

There are a lot of theories about how stress could possibly contribute to a person’s risk of developing cancer. Here’s a look at some of the big ones:

  • Continuous activation of the stress response and exposure to the associated hormones could promote the growth and spread of tumors.
  • The immune system can be important for finding and eliminating cancer cells. But chronic stress can make it harder for your immune system to carry out these tasks.
  • Prolonged stress could lead to a state of inflammation that may contribute to cancer risk.
  • Stress can prompt people to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, or overeating. All of these can increase your risk of developing cancer.

What the research says

The relationship between stress and cancer is the source of many ongoing studies. Here’s a snapshot view of some relevant findings. One 2012 review of twelve studies assessed work stress and how it relates to cancer risk. They found that work stress wasn’t associated with overall cancer risk. Further, work stress wasn’t linked with the development of specific cancers, such as those of the prostate, lung, and breast.

However, a 2017 study investigated the past levels and duration of job stress experienced by more 2,000 men newly diagnosed with prostate cancer. It found that perceived workplace stress was associated with a higher risk of prostate cancer.

A large 2016 study of 106,000 women in the United Kingdom looked at whether frequent stress or negative life events affected their risk of breast cancer. In the end, the study didn’t find consistent evidence to suggest that frequent stress factors into someone’s breast cancer risk. Overall, there still isn’t enough conclusive evidence to definitely say whether stress causes cancer or even increases someone’s risk.

Indirect Vs. Direct Causes

Even in cases where there does appear to be a link between stress and cancer, it’s still unclear whether stress contributes directly or indirectly. For example:

  • Someone under chronic stress takes up smoking as a means of relief. Is it the stress or the smoking that increases their risk of cancer? Or is it both?
  • Someone experiences chronic stress for several years while caring for a family member with cancer. Down the line, they develop cancer themselves. Was stress a factor? Or was it genetics?

As experts begin to better understand both cancer and stress individually, we’ll likely learn more about how the two relate to each other, if at all.

Source: The Rubicon Program

The effects of stress on existing cancer

While it’s unclear whether stress causes cancer, there is some evidence that stress can have an effect on existing cancer by speeding up tumor growth and metastasis. Metastasis occurs when cancer spreads from its initial location.

A 2016 study in a mouse model of pancreatic cancer exposed mice to chronic stress. The investigators found that after five weeks, the stressed mice had larger tumors and a reduced survival rate. Their immune systems were also significantly weakened.

A 2019 study examined human breast tumor cells implanted in mice. Researchers found an increase in the activity of receptors for stress hormones in sites were metastasis occurred. This suggests that the activation of these receptors by stress hormones could play a role in metastasis.

Tips for reducing stress

Regardless of whether stress causes cancer, there’s no doubt that stress affects your overall health. Protect your physical and emotional well-being with these tips:

  • Set priorities and boundaries. Determine what needs to be done now and what can wait a little bit. Learn to turn down new tasks that may overextend or overwhelm you.
  • Take time to cultivate your relationships with loved ones.
  • Burn off steam keep your heart healthy with regular exercise.
  • Try out relaxation techniques such as yoga, deep breathing, or meditation.
  • Make sleep a priority. Aim for seven to eight hours per night.

If these tips aren’t cutting it, remember that most of us can use a little help from time to time. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

The bottom line

Stress is a natural response that your body has to perceived threats. Stress can be acute or chronic. Having chronic stress can put you at risk for a variety of health conditions, such as heart disease and depression. Whether or not chronic stress puts you at risk of developing or causes cancer is unclear. Some studies indicate that it does and others that it doesn’t. Stress may be just one of many factors contributing to the development of cancer.

Meditation and Visualization Exercises

You may decide to choose a mind/body exercise to integrate into your healing program. There is excellent evidence that many mind/body/spirit approaches can play an important role in the healing process.

Meditation produces demonstrable effects on brain and immune function. Some of the side effects of conventional cancer treatments may be lessened with the integration of simple meditative exercises. Meditation includes a wide range of approaches. The exercises described below are those that have been helpful to thousands of cancer patients around the world.

Meditation

For many of us, our minds are so busy with thoughts that we rarely create the opportunity to simply be at peace, relaxing into the present moment, quieting our minds, and being more aware of the sensations in our bodies.

By practicing meditation, which is simply learning to relax and be at peace, we can become more open and attentive to our deeper, intuitive wisdom and the healing potential that lies within us. By invoking this relaxation response, our body moves into the parasympathetic “healing” mode in which physical healing is optimized.

Meditation is a way of cultivating moment-to-moment awareness and supports becoming more present to our own experience. To do this requires that we become aware of the constant stream of thoughts and reactions to our inner and outer experiences in which we are all normally caught up. During meditation or contemplation, we discover that we are constantly generating thoughts and reactions. By simply becoming aware of our breath instead of the stream of thoughts, we become more aware of our body experience, allowing us to release pent-up anxieties and emotions. With practice we can move toward acceptance and release of stress, and even change our limiting beliefs.

Meditation is a valuable way of reestablishing inner calmness and balance in the face of emotional upset or when you “have a lot on your mind.” When life becomes stressful and out of balance, we have all experienced how relaxing it can be to be alone for a few minutes and just breathe, in and out, deeply and quietly. Research has shown that meditation can alleviate psychological and physical suffering of persons living with cancer.

Visualization

Guided imagery, also known as visualization, is an extension of meditation. A leader or a recorded script is often employed to assist the participant in visualizing health and healing. Guided imagery has been credited with reducing side effects, pain, and stress. It can also aid in emotional coping with cancer and assist in preparing for anticipated situations such as surgery or chemotherapy. The imagery process can also be helpful in decision-making and can be employed to improve mental health and control. Finally, guided imagery can reduce the need for pain medication. Research shows increases in natural killer cell activity as a result.

Both meditation and guided imagery are less about method and more about calming your mind and spirit and living in the present moment. By cultivating clarity and peace in meditation, by imaging health and healing, we become more accepting, less judgmental, and happier. What follows are some suggested scripts for your consideration:

Meditation Exercise: Relaxation

Please try this simple exercise to help you fully relax your body.

  • Close your eyes, remove glasses, loosen tight clothing, and take your shoes off.
  • Start by adjusting your position so that you are sitting comfortably. Don’t cross your legs, ankles or feet, or hands. Sit with your back supported. If your legs are too short to reach the floor comfortably, then put a book or bag on the floor on which to rest your feet. Lie on the floor if you wish.
  • There may be sounds in the room or outside. Try to ignore them. Remember that life goes on and that we can become relaxed despite the noises around us.
  • Raise your shoulders up to your ears and let them fall down gently.
  • Open your mouth as if yawning, close it a little, and rock your lower jaw left and right.
  • Close your mouth and push your tongue hard up to the roof of your mouth. Let the tongue spring back. Loosen your jaw more.
  • Once again raise your shoulders to your ears, then release them gently.
  • Now just breathe normally and softly.
  • Allow your inward breath to become a little deeper.
  • As you breathe, just notice the breath and bring your attention to the sensation of the breath flowing at the tip of your nostrils.
  • Now notice the natural gentle movement of your chest as you breathe in and breathe out.
  • Take a deep breath without straining.
  • Allow the breath to come and go effortlessly.
  • Just continue for a moment or two longer.
  • Allow the natural rise and fall of your breath to help you to soften and relax and remove any tiredness or tension.
  • As you breathe in, bring in softness and relaxation.
  • As you exhale, take away any tiredness or tension.
  • Inward breath bringing softness and relaxation.
  • Outward breath taking away tension.
  • Continue to breathe slowly and peacefully.
  • Check around your body. Is there any remaining tension or tiredness? If so, take your breath there to soften and renew.

Visualization Exercise: Guided Imagery for Healing

Please try this simple exercise to help you support immune function:

  • Find a comfortable place to sit, with your back straight and your feet firmly on the ground. Ensure that you will not be disturbed during your meditation by muting your cell phone or taking your phone off the hook and allowing the answering machine to handle incoming calls.
  • Take about five minutes to relax your body completely, working through from the feet up to the head. Imagine that you can just let go of all the muscles; feel them soften and release, allowing the tension to flow out of your whole being.
  • Focus particularly on the shoulders, the neck, and the jaw, as these are areas where we often, without realizing it, hold a great deal of tension.
  • When your body feels totally relaxed, bring your attention to your breathing. Don’t change it. Just be aware of the breath moving in and out of your body.
  • Notice as much as you can about your breathing. How it feels as the breath moves in and out of the nostrils? Where do you take the breath to in your body? Stay with this for another five minutes or so.
  • Now imagine that you are outside in the sunshine. Get a sense of the light of the sun, warm but not too hot, and shining down on you. You might like to imagine that you are lying on a quiet beach soaking up the sunlight.
  • Imagine that you can breathe in the light of the sun, taking it into your body. Let the light fill up every cell of your body. When you feel glowing and full of light, let that light move anywhere in your body where you feel that you are in need of healing. Feel your cells transforming, becoming energized as the radiance heals and restores you.
  • Now let the light expand out of you. Radiate the light around your body, so that you are imagining yourself glowing with light and health. Stay with this part of the meditation for about ten minutes.
  • Now bring your attention back to the breath. Every time you breathe in, silently say, “I am breathing in health.” And on each out-breath say to yourself, “I am happy and whole.” As you do this, feel the truth of what you are saying. Believe it so that it becomes a reality for you.
  • Now let it all go and bring yourself back to the room, slowly and gently. Feel the ground beneath your feet and become aware once more of your surroundings.

You may wish to expand your meditation and visualization experiences. Many communities offer classes that can assist you in perfecting these skills. There are also many recorded meditations that can be helpful in assisting your efforts.