Did Stress Cause My Cancer?

Does stress weaken the immune system allowing the cancer to grow? It’s a widespread belief – but how accurate is it?

The question of  the link between stress and cancer has been investigated by researchers exploring whether people who experienced extreme stress were more likely to develop cancer. Many large studies of cancer and stress were done in Denmark, one of which looked at the incidence of cancer in 11,380 parents whose children had cancer. It  found that the incidence of cancer among the  parents was no higher than members of the general population. Another study looked at the cancer rate among 21,062 parents who had lost a child. There was no increase in cancer among the parents for up to 18 years afterward.  Similarly, studies have shown no convincing evidence of rates of recurrence in women who have suffered a loss in the months and years after cancer treatment has ended.

Most scientific studies have found that stress does not increase the risk of cancer. One study had even found that high stress levels can actually reduce the risk of breast cancer, by lowering oestrogen levels. And even in the event that stress and cancer are linked, the effects would be very small compared to other factors such as lifestyle, age or family history ~ Cancer Research UK

Nevertheless, despite studies which show no evidence of an association between stressful events and a diagnosis of cancer, the  perception remains among many patients that stress was a factor in causing their cancer. I am sure that many of us can look back at the time of our own diagnosis and point to a stressful situation at that time. Maybe it was a divorce, a relationship break up, the death or illness of a loved one or stress at work.   We desperately try to figure out what caused these rogue cancer cells to multiply in our bodies and cause cancer.   Is it the case that we need to find something to blame for our cancer?

Perhaps we could look at it another way. Many people who are chronically stressed turn to unhealthy ways of coping – smoking, drinking or eating excessively. We know these are risk factors for developing cancer, so perhaps this is our indirect link.

A quick detour at this point to the prevailing notion that maintaining a positive outlook or a fighting spirit will help you “beat” cancer.

There is no conclusive evidence that people who are distressed by their cancer experience have poorer clinical outcomes than those who feel “positive” – provided they follow evidence-based advice on treatment and care…The perception that some patients did not survive because they were not as positive as others is unfounded and unfair. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is tough enough; being pressured into thinking that the only way through it is to remain positive and thus minimise your stress can add to a patient’s individual burden. ~ Ian Olver, Clinical Professor of Oncology at Cancer Council Australia

While it is true that stress impacts your health, cancer is a complex disease and the  scientific evidence that stress causescancer is not conclusive. However,  this is not the final word on this subject, and subsequent research may prove otherwise.Whatever we believe about the connection between stress and cancer, there is no denying that stress can cause other health problems that negatively impact our lives. It’s unrealistic to think we can avoid stress completely. Everyone feels stressed at some point in their lives and it is known that small levels of stress  (u stress) can in fact be positive, making us more alert and improving our performance. But long periods of (dis) stress can cause mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and can contribute to physical health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, ulcers and hypertension. It makes sense then to get our stress levels under control.

So, I am declaring next week on Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, stress week or rather beat stress week. I would love you to join me in taking a closer look at the nature of stress, what your stress triggers are, and some of the ways that you have found helpful in reducing stress in your lives.

Do you believe stress had a part to play in your cancer diagnosis? Do you worry that stress could cause a recurrence of cancer or a progression of the disease?