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Can Stress Cause Cancer?

Gabrielle Applebury
Stress woman with head in hands

Researchers have long been interested in the link between stress and cancer. Although there is no evidence that directly links stress to causing cancer, research suggests chronic stress can affect how certain types of cancer metastasize. Research also notes stress-related habits can increase the risk for developing cancer.

Chronic Stress and Metastasis

According to research, chronic stress can speed up the process of metastasizing in breast, colorectal, and ovarian cancer. Metastasizing in terms of cancer means the spreading of cancer away from the initial cancer growth or site. When you feel stressed, your body releases norepinephrine which can stimulate cancer cells while also creating an inflammatory response in your immune cells. With a weakened immunity, on top of cancer treatments, the risk for secondary illnesses and infections increases as well.

Stress and Smoking

Research consistently supports the notion those with high levels of stress are at risk for being heavy smokers instead of light or occasional smokers within the smoking population. This study noted one in three cancer diagnoses could be prevented with appropriate smoking cessation education and support. Smoking is cited as one of the most preventable causes of cancer, particularly in the lung, mouth, esophagus, and larynx.

Shift Work

Stressed medical professional in employee room

People who have shift work schedules are at an increased risk for chronic stress, poor habits, and cancer. Chronic stress does not lead to cancer within this population, but it can contribute to a weakened immunity, as well as an interruption in regular circadian rhythm cycles. Research suggests sleep deprivation and interrupted sleep over prolonged periods has been linked to a 48 percent increase in cancer within the shift working population. The link between shift work and breast cancer prevalence has been proven to be statistically significant amongst animals and probable amongst humans. Breast and prostate cancer were the most studies within this population. The data suggested working night shifts for more than 20 years increased the chances of breast cancer.

Overeating and Cancer

Stress can cause the brain to release cortisol. This can trigger the craving for high-fat and high-sugar foods as a source of fuel for the fight, flight, or freeze reaction the body is having. In a study of rats, those that were stressed ate more sugar compared to their less stressed counterparts. Eating high fat, high-sugar foods can reduce the brain's release of stress hormones, creating a less intense emotional effect. Overeating is cited as an avoidable cause of cancer behind smoking tobacco products. In a study of around 1,000 women, those with extreme caloric intake were at an increased risk for breast cancer development, especially amongst the post-menopausal population.

Coping With Stress

Even though there isn't any conclusive evidence whether stress directly causes cancer, there are healthy ways you can cope with your stress so your risk of other health-related issues decreases. Decreasing your stress can also positively affect how rapidly cancer metastasizes. You can try:

Understanding the Link Between Stress and Cancer

Conclusive evidence has yet to link chronic stress as a cause for cancer. However, chronic stress has been linked to having an impact on how ovarian, colorectal, and breast cancer metastasize, as well as affecting habits that can lead to cancer.

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Can Stress Cause Cancer?