Does Stress Cause Cancer?

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

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 minimize your stress can add to a patient’s individual burden.

While it is true that stress impacts your health, cancer is a complex disease and the scientific evidence that stress causes cancer 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.

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?