Stress is part of your body’s normal responses to a perceived threat. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can force you to achieve things and help you avoid potentially dangerous situations. But too much stress can have a huge impact on your physical and emotional health.
So, can stress cause cancer? The answer is not clear yet. Read on to learn about the link between cancer and stress, the available evidence, and common theories about how stress can affect existing cancer.
Different types of stress
Before diving into the relationship between stress and cancer, it is important to fully understand stress.
When your brain detects potential danger, it sends a combination of nerve and hormone signals to your adrenal glands. These glands produce the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which initiate the stress response.
Acute stress is what most people imagine when they talk about stress. It is generally short-lived and passes after certain situations.
Acute stress can arise in this way:
– Situations where you need to brake suddenly
– Arguing with a family member or friend
– Staying in traffic that causes you to be late for work
– Feeling pressure to get a job done on time
Acute stress can cause a variety of physical symptoms, including:
– Fast heartbeat
– Increased blood pressure
– Rapid breathing
– Muscle tension
– Excessive sweating
These effects are usually temporary and resolve once the stressful situation is over.
Chronic stress happens when your stress response is activated for a long time. It can wear you down both physically and emotionally.
Examples of things that can cause chronic stress:
– Living in a restless home environment
– Doing a hated job
– Having frequent financial difficulties
– A chronic illness
Compared to acute stress, chronic stress can have long-term effects on your physical and emotional health.
Chronic stress can contribute to certain diseases over time:
– Heart disease
– Digestive problems
– Anxiety and depression
– Weight gain
– Sleep problems
– Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
– Fertility problems
– Weak immune system
Popular theories about stress and cancer
There are many theories about how stress can contribute to a person’s risk of developing cancer.
Here are some great theories:
– Continued activation of the stress response and exposure to associated hormones may promote the growth and spread of tumors.
– The immune system may be important for finding and eliminating cancer cells. But chronic stress can make it harder for your immune system to perform these tasks.
– Prolonged stress can cause an inflammatory state that can contribute to cancer risk.
– Stress can lead people to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, or binge eating and drinking. All of these can increase the risk of developing cancer.
What research says
The relationship between stress and cancer is the source of many ongoing studies.
A 2013 study evaluated work stress and how it relates to cancer risk. They found that job stress was not associated with cancer risk. Job stress was not linked to the development of specific cancers such as prostate, lung, and breast.
However, a 2017 study investigated the past stress levels and duration of work stress experienced by more than 2000 men newly diagnosed with prostate cancer. Perceived workplace stress was found to be associated with a higher risk of prostate cancer.
A 2016 study of 106,000 women in the UK looked at whether stress or adverse life events affect breast cancer risk. The study found no consistent evidence between stress and breast cancer.
In general, there is insufficient evidence to say whether stress causes or increases the risk of cancer.
Indirect and direct causes
Even if there appears to be a link between stress and cancer, whether stress directly or indirectly contributes to cancer still not clear.
– Someone under chronic stress takes smoking as a means of relaxation. Is it stress or smoking that increases cancer risk? Or both?
– Someone experiences several years of chronic stress while caring for a family member with cancer. Later, they develop cancer themselves. Is stress a factor? Or was it genetic?
As experts begin to better understand both cancer and individual stress, we will likely learn more about how the two are related. While it’s unclear whether stress causes cancer, there is some evidence that stress can have an impact on existing cancer by accelerating tumor growth and metastasis. Metastasis occurs when cancer has spread from its initial location.
Stress is a natural response that your body needs to detect threats. Stress can be acute or chronic. Having chronic stress can put you at risk for a variety of health conditions, such as heart disease and depression.
It is unclear whether chronic stress causes cancer. Some studies show it is, while others show it isn’t. Stress may be just one of many factors that contribute to the development of cancer.
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