Cancer and Stress

To deal with cancer, you also need to deal with stress. And the way you handle stress can have a huge impact on the way you and your health team manage cancer.

What Is Stress?
Stress is a normal response to feeling threatened or to facing a challenge you’re not sure you can meet. It can be chronic, which means it is long lasting and often gets worse over time. Or it can be acute, coming on quickly with short-lived but often severe symptoms.

You can have emotional stress, for example the feelings you get when you have money problems or the way you felt hearing you have cancer. You can also have physical stress. For instance, not getting the sleep you need can make it hard for your body to do what it needs to do. An illness can put stress on organs and other parts of your body. And some treatments or medications you take can cause your body to react in stressful ways.

How Might Stress Affect Me?
Emotional stress can overwhelm you. It can make you feel helpless. It can interfere with your sense of well-being and cause you to lose hope that things will improve. It can lead to depression.

Some people believe stress can play a role in developing cancer. There is, though, very little evidence to show that stress causes cancer in people who don’t already have it. The few studies that have shown a link looked mainly at severe stress. One found that women who lost a spouse through separation, divorce or death had a higher risk for breast cancer. Another showed that people who lived through the Holocaust as children have a higher risk for developing cancer.

More studies have shown, though, that if you already have cancer, stress may play a role in the way it progresses. Such things as trauma, depression and distress have all been linked to more rapid progression.

How Does Stress Affect the Way Cancer Progresses?
The effects of stress may stem from how your body responds to it. When you’re stressed, your body makes certain so-called “stress” hormones to deal with it. In many cancers, these hormones bind with cancer cells. That can make the cells more invasive and help protect them as they move from one part of the body to another. This makes it easier for the tumor to grow and the cancer to spread.

Stress also can affect your immune system. Studies show that stress interferes with the way certain cells in your immune system work. In particular, it affects cells that find and that kill emerging cancer cells.

How Can I Protect Myself Against the Effects of Stress?
People with better support tend to have better functioning immune systems. They also tend to have lower levels of certain stress hormones. This makes it less likely that stress will cause changes in the way a tumor grows.

Some studies also show that people with more support have lower levels of chemicals that promote new cell growth and make tumors more aggressive.

How Does Support Work?
Support makes it easier to develop qualities you need to deal with stress. For example, it can help you develop more active coping skills.

A strong support network can reduce the effects of stress in several ways:

  • It can help you see an event as less stressful. That will lessen your body’s response to it.
  • It can improve how you cope by providing advice, problem solving techniques and resources for help when you need it.
  • It can help enhance positive health behaviors such as exercise and proper nutrition.
  • It can provide support that makes it easier to adhere to your medical treatment plan.

A number of recent studies have shown that, in addition to a support network, there are potential benefits from programs that help you learn how to manage stress. Such programs include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • “Mindfulness”
  • Yoga
  • Alternative therapies such as Healing Touch
  • Medication

Such programs can not only help deal with the stress that comes from having cancer, but the stress that can come from treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.


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