Effect of Chronic Stress on Cancer

We live in a fast-paced world that perfectly drives stress. Chronic stress harms the body and causes inflammation or cardiometabolic diseases. Stress, at times, plays a role in cancer. However, is it possible to determine the link between the two conditions?

Case study

Stressed Out PersonAccording to studies, there are several ways in which stress could influence cancer development. For those with certain types of cancer, stress accelerates progression and worsens its outcomes.

Stress and the body

Acute stress helps us react to dangerous situations and is completely normal. When you encounter a stressful situation, your body turns on two pathways. These are the sympathetic nervous system that triggers flight or fight response and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis that releases cortisol, a key stress hormone. Once turned on, these two axes help you get through the situation and when the stress is over, they turn back off.

Chronic stress and distress activate these pathways continuously releasing stress hormones in a manner your body was not designed for. Past research shows that chronic activation of these pathways leads to changes in the body. These changes could influence the development and progression of cancer.

Long-term release of stress hormones induces DNA damage and affects DNA repair. This is according to Melanie Flint who is a senior lecturer in immunopharmacology at the University of Brighton. Chronic stress weakens the immune system. This could be the way through for cancer cells.

Growing evidence shows that chronic stress can affect cancer risk and progression. This is through immune dysregulation. Most evidence ties stress to cancer survival rather than the risk of getting it. This is according to Dr. Elisa Bandera who is a professor and chief of Cancer Epidemiology and Health Outcomes. She was not part of the study.

Stress and cancer risk

Most human studies rely on associations to show links between stress levels and cancer incidences. Previous studies suggest that chronic stress is associated with an increased risk of a number of cancers. These include breast cancer and some gastrointestinal cancers.

A Japanese study published in 2017 found no association between short-term stress and cancer incidences. However, they found that individuals, especially men, with consistently high-level stress for long periods had an 11% greater risk of developing cancer.

Tworoger and her team discovered that socially isolated women had about a 1.5-fold increased risk of getting ovarian cancer. They also found out that people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms had a higher chance of getting ovarian cancer.

Scientists are working on another analysis on the issue of the International Journal of Cancer that analyzed the association between work stress and cancer risk. They found a significant association between work stress and risk of lung, colorectal and esophageal cancer. This does not include risk of breast, prostate and ovarian cancer.


Some experts say that it’s not stress that causes cancer but it is the unhealthy behaviors associated with being stressed. Tworoger, however, thinks that more studies should be done. There is more evidence showing that decreasing stress can help improve survival for cancer patients.

We would appreciate it if you shared your thoughts on the discussion in the comment section below.


Saplakoglu, Y. (2019, 04 26). Live Science. Retrieved 04 30, 2019, from www.livescience.com: https://www.livescience.com/65342-chronic-stress-cancer.html



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