Can Cancer Be Caused by Stress?

The link that you shouldn’t ignore

Graphic depicting the Physical Indications of Fight or Flight Response

by Catherine, October 24, 2023

In the last few decades, stress has become a normal part of everyone’s everyday routine.

Juggling the demands of a busy lifestyle –work, family, social life, health, household– can leave you exhausted and make you feel like you don’t have time.

Enter… Stress.

When you’re under a lot of stress, you might wonder if this could lead to cancer.

We’ve all heard the stories…

Too much stress at home. Breast cancer.

Too much stress at work. Skin cancer.

Unemployed. Stressed about money. Colon cancer.

But is there really a link between the two? Can cancer be caused by stress?

Research results are tricky because this is a very hard thing to measure. Some studies have suggested a link between stress and cancer, possibly due to prolonged stress leading to inflammation in the body, which could contribute to cancer risk.

So understanding the impact of stress on your health is crucial for taking the necessary steps to maintain good health and a stress-free life.

In this article, you’ll learn about:

  • The factors that connect stress to cancer development
  • Practical steps and techniques to reduce stress in your life
  • The link between stress and health

Connection Between Stress and Cancer

There are two types of stress that you’ll experience: acute stress and chronic stress.

Acute stress refers to stress that is short-lived and comes up in a specific situation. For example, being stressed about an important project at work that’s due in the next two weeks.

Chronic stress refers to stress that lasts for weeks, months, and even years sometimes. Like the stress you may feel when you’re taking care of a loved one through sickness, or having a generally stressful job that feels like you’re constantly putting out fires.

Both these types of stress trigger a reaction in your stress hormones, but the real threat to your health is associated with chronic stress.

Stress Hormones Impact on Cancer

When you experience stress, your body responds by releasing stress hormones, such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can increase your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels.

Although research has not been definitive about the direct link between stress response and cancer, there’s a lot to say about chronic stress and cancer.

The Fight-or-Flight Response

The fight-or-flight response is a survival mechanism that allows you to react quickly to dangerous situations. 

Acute stress, such as short-term danger or confrontation, triggers this response, releasing adrenaline and other stress hormones to increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness.

Graphic depicting the Physical Indications of Fight or Flight Response

However, when faced with chronic stress, your fight-or-flight response may be continuously activated. 

This can lead to persistently elevated stress hormone levels and increased blood supply, potentially accelerating the growth of cancerous tumors.

Chronic Stress and Cancer Risk

When you experience chronic stress, your body suffers a long-term activation of your stress response…

And this can disrupt almost ALL your body’s natural processes.

It can contribute to the development of other health issues, such as high blood pressure, ulcers, and psychological disorders.

Ultimately, that’s what weakens your immune system and makes you more prone to diseases like cancer.

On top of that, your body might enter a state of inflammation due to prolonged stress, which could contribute to an increased risk of cancer.

In addition to these direct effects on your body, chronic stress often leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as:

  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Overeating or undereating
  • Insufficient physical activity
  • Insufficient sleep

These behaviors can increase your cancer risk even further.

But there’s good news! There are proven methods to reduce your stress levels, and I’m going to walk you through them in this article.

Impact of Stress on the Immune System

Weakened Immune System

Chronic stress can take a significant toll on your immune system.

When you’re constantly under stress, your body produces stress hormones that may weaken your immune system, leaving you prone to diseases like cancer.

This type of no-end-in-sight stress can also lead to:

  • Digestive problems
  • Cardiovascular disorders
  • Gynecological disorders
  • Psychiatric complications
  • Dermatological disorders
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Viral infections
  • Depression
  • Digestive diseases
  • Muscle tone disorders

Both your body and mind can suffer due to long-term stress, and it can weaken your immune system in the following ways:

  • Increase inflammation
  • Reduce the number of natural killer cells
  • Alter the function of immune cells

Cancer Development

There are numerous ways in which chronic stress can contribute to the growth and spread of cancer.

For instance, your stress hormones might wake up dormant cancer cells that remain in the body after treatment. These hormones can trigger a chain reaction in immune cells that prompt the dormant cancer cells to form tumors again.

This is why managing stress levels needs to be a crucial part of a cancer survivor’s life to avoid recurrence.

But this immune dysfunction (caused by chronic stress) can deeply influence tumor behaviors and may even impair the effectiveness of certain therapies or treatments…

Which is why keeping your stress in check as a cancer patient is of utmost importance as well!

To maintain your immune system’s functionality and minimize the risk of cancer development or reoccurrence, you must learn how to identify the red flags that your body will send you when you’re undergoing long-term stress, and adopt healthy coping mechanisms.

Impact of Stress on Cancer Treatment & Survival

Stress and Chemotherapy

While other things will impact the overall results of a chemotherapy treatment, stress plays a major role in how things turn out.

Stress has been proven to increase your body’s resistance to chemotherapy and reduce its chances of adequately fighting off tumoured cells.

If you’re undergoing chemo, it’s important that you learn how to manage stress. This will also help you go through this challenging time feeling more at ease.

It is absolutely possible to be stress-free during chemotherapy.

And it will be your ally in not only improving its results, but also reducing its negative impact in your body and mind.

Stress and Metastasis

The other problem with long-term stress is its proven increased risk of recurrence and its ability to speed up metastasis.

When your stress hormones get triggered on a regular basis, they can stimulate cancer cell growth and increase your chances of metastasis.

However, reducing stress is absolutely possible and no matter how hard it may seem today, you can do it!

Don’t let the fear of being stressed stress you out. Instead, try the practices I’ll share below and discover which one works best for you.

Lifestyle Factors Influencing Cancer Risk

Your Environment

Your environment is made up of all the things that surround you in your everyday life:

  • Your physical environment, such as your home, workplace, and other spaces you visit regularly.
  • Your relationships, such as your relationship with your coworkers, boss, or employees, your significant other, your family, and your friends.
  • The food you eat, the air you breathe, the water you drink, the cosmetics you use… It’s all part of your environment.
Graphic presenting elements that influence the occurrence of cancer

Your environment plays a vital role in your overall health and can influence your cancer risk. It’s essential to be mindful of your surroundings and take steps to minimize exposure to harmful elements in your environment.

On a physical level, all the things in your environment can increase your risk of cancer if you’re not paying attention to them.

On a deeper level, your environment can create stress in your life, which may lead to cancer in the long run.

Exercise

Regular physical activity can help lower your risk for cancer by maintaining a healthy body weight and improving your immune system function.

But too much exercise can be counterproductive, increasing your stress levels and negatively affecting your immune system.

Aim to move your body at least 30 minutes a day. Going for a brisk walk is enough!

Sleep

Poor sleep can contribute to a weakened immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses, including cancer. 

Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Establish a consistent sleep schedule, create a comfortable sleep environment, and develop healthy bedtime routines to help improve your sleep quality.

Nutrition

A well-balanced diet is crucial for maintaining overall health and potentially reducing cancer risk. Key nutritional aspects to focus on include:

  • Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Limiting processed foods, refined sugars, gluten, and unhealthy fats
  • Staying hydrated by drinking water regularly
  • Practicing portion control and mindful eating

By paying attention to these lifestyle factors, you can actively reduce your risk of developing cancer and promote better overall health.

“Poor sleep can contribute to a weakened immune system, making you more susceptible to illnesses, including cancer.”

Stress Management & Cancer Prevention

Before you get stressed about being stressed, you should know that there’s a lot that you can do to manage it and prevent chronic stress in your life.

This can ultimately help you stay healthy, battle cancer in an easier way, and prevent recurrence or a first diagnosis.

The following are the three main techniques that have worked for me when it comes to stress reduction.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

MBSR or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is an evidence-based program that takes you through intensive mindfulness training so you can implement it in your daily life.

This 8-week training is composed of 2 main components: mindfulness meditation and yoga. It is completely flexible and customizable, and it’s been proven to yield incredible results.

While undertaking training might sound like an additional stressor, in reality, this technique will help you feel calmer from the very beginning.

You’ll feel relief almost immediately after starting, and it can have a positive impact on countless aspects of your life.

This technique has helped me personally when others were failing, and it has also helped some of my clients who struggled to implement other tools.

Catherine Schopfer practising yoga

Exercise

Exercising is one of the best ways to reduce your stress levels!

Because exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood elevators, it can help reduce feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression.

But beware: your body cannot distinguish between different types of stress. Heavy training sessions that are taxing on the body are an additional stressor for it. 

So if you’re under a lot of stress, try to keep to low-intensity exercise like walking or stretching.

Breathwork

Deep breathing exercises can help reduce stress by stimulating the relaxation response in the body, easing tension and calming the mind.

Some effective breathwork techniques include:

  • Diaphragmatic breathing: Breathe in deeply, filling your lungs and expanding your diaphragm, then exhale slowly, focusing on fully emptying your lungs.
  • 4-7-8 technique: Inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, then exhale for 8 seconds, repeating the cycle several times.
  • Alternate nostril breathing: Inhale through one nostril while covering the other, then exhale through the opposite nostril, alternating back and forth.

These practices are designed to help you manage stress and prioritize self-care. They promote overall emotional and physical wellbeing.

If you want to learn more about breathwork techniques, click here to get my Breathwork 101 Guide with tips and tricks for effective implementation.

Seeking Professional Help

If you’re concerned about the possibility of developing cancer due to stress –whether it’s a first diagnosis or a recurrence– it’s a good idea to seek professional help.

Sustained levels of stress are not healthy for you, and if you’re having trouble implementing the strategies I shared above consistently, it may be time to get support.

Catherine Schopfer with a client

In my practice as a cancer coach, I help women navigate their emotions, understand, and manage stress. I also help them identify their biggest stressors so they can avoid chronic stress and can better deal with acute stress.

With the right tools, resources, strategies, and support, you can not only learn to manage stress…

You can improve your life drastically, whether you’re a cancer patient or a cancer survivor.

Cancer coaching (and other forms of professional help) helps you:

  • Establish stress relief goals
  • Get guidance for coping with the emotional challenges of cancer
  • Discover the stress management techniques that work best for you

Remember, reaching out for help is a crucial step in managing your stress and ensuring your overall mental and physical health. 

There are many ways in which stress can impact your life, and you don’t need to try to tackle it alone.

It doesn’t matter where you are on the cancer journey. If you’re struggling, it’s time to get help!

Catherine Schopfer's Avatar

catherine schopfer.

Catherine Schopfer defies outdated narratives around cancer that don’t serve anyone.

Instead, she offers a fresh perspective: cancer can be the springboard to your best life… If you learn the lessons that it’s here to teach you.

Through 1:1 coaching and support groups, Catherine guides cancer patients, survivors, and caretakers through a difficult time so they can emerge on the other side embracing life like never before.

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Content on this website is not considered medical advice. Please see a physician before making any medical or lifestyle changes.

© 2024 Catherine Schopfer Online Cancer Coach. All Rights Reserved.