Stress and Cancer -- A Reason to Relax
- There’s evidence that the habits and conditions that come with stress can increase cancer risk; The combination of the holiday season and COVID-19 pandemic can lead to increasing amounts of stress.
- Smoking, unhealthy eating and excessive amounts of alcohol are examples of stress-related behaviors that have known associations with cancer.
- Research points to the benefits of meditation and exercise to decrease stress and stay grounded.
“Cancer patients undergo an extreme amount of stress, and there’s a number of common things cancer patients can experience such as anxiety, depression, financial toxicity, social isolation, and sometimes even PTSD,” Dr. Shelly Tworoger, a researcher at Moffitt Cancer Center, told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “So there’s a lot of concern in the oncology community that the COVID-19 pandemic can magnify those uncertainties and stressors for cancer patients.”Read More
“There have been several studies that have looked at healing and recovery after cancer surgery or have looked at recurrence,” said Dr. Heather Yeo, an associate professor of Surgery and Healthcare Policy and Research at Weill Cornell Medical College and assistant attending surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, who’s also a SurvivorNet medical advisor. “When your immune system is down — when there’s an excess of stress hormones going on — your body has a hard time recovering and cancer takes advantage of that.”
The benefit of de-stressing holds true regardless of whether you’ve been through a cancer journey. While “there’s little convincing evidence that chronic stress causes cancer initiation, there is extensive evidence that chronic stress can promote cancer growth and progression,” Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, a professor and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson Cancer Center, also told SurvivorNet. The reason, he explained, is the release of chemicals — specifically epinephrine and norepinephrine — that can lead “to diverse biological effects of key cancer pathways.”
Epinephrine and norepinephrine aid the “fight or flight” human response to stress, whether it be physical or mental, which makes it possible to escape danger and perform physical feats in times of duress. But they can also increase blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels.
Dr. Allyson Ocean, associate professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College/NewYork Presbyterian Hospital, added that “it may be that stress leads people towards unhealthy behaviors that are more directly associated with cancer,” such as smoking, unhealthy eating, and drinking too much alcohol.
Take Care of Your Mind and Body
One of the most important things you can do is be kind to yourself. Layering on top of the holiday madness feelings of regret or anger about things you can’t control is a recipe for stress. Breast cancer survivor Stefanie Wardrep told SurvivorNet that, after her diagnosis, she felt guilty she had wasted part of her life dealing with depression.
“When you’re faced with your mortality, you think,‘I wasted time.’ Even though I can now see that it couldn’t be helped. You have to deal with your mental health at whatever pace that you can,” she said.
Meditation has proven to decrease psychological stress, including in cancer survivors. Survivor Shannon Masur, who previously spoke to SurvivorNet about her colon cancer and Lynch Syndrome, said she knew little about meditation before she got cancer, but that she tried it out and, ultimately, it helped her to let go of her fears.
“I had never meditated before and I thought it would be such a challenge,” Masur said. “But it really wasn’t … and just having that sense of calmness that comes into me when I’m meditating has been really, really helpful.”
“Exercise … has been associated with a decrease in recurrence rates for certain cancers like colorectal cancer and breast cancer,” Dr. Ocean told SurvivorNet.
Other ways to mitigate stress include getting enough sleep.
De-stressing Inspiration from the SurvivorNet Community
- A Guided Meditation for the SurvivorNet Community
- Don’t Buy into the Backlash – the Science on Meditation is Clear
- Cancer Survivor Joel Naftelberg Learned to Dance on His Problems
- Dancing Her Way to Recovery – How Zumba Helped Cancer Survivor Vera Trifunovich Cope
- How I Made It Through Cancer: Painting & Dreaming
Do Not Stress about Your Stress!
This may sound counter-intuitive, but again, there isn’t sufficient evidence to prove that stress itself actually causes cancer.
Dr. Elizabeth Comen, who serves as a medical advisor to SurvivorNet and is a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, spoke to SurvivorNet specifically about breast cancer, noting that “there are plenty of people that lead very healthy lives, have great diets, remove themselves from the stress and pollution of big cities, meditate every day, and still get diagnosed with breast cancer. Though stress can certainly contribute to how patients deal with their diagnosis, there is no evidence supporting the idea that it could actually cause the diagnosis.”
This doesn’t mean that stress isn’t something to keep in mind while dealing with a diagnosis or treatment, she said. Patients and their families should absolutely consider stress management a very important part of leading a healthy lifestyle – even if the stress itself was not a factor in their cancer diagnosis.
Dr. Elizabeth Comen of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center spoke with SurvivorNet about whether a hectic lifestyle actually causes cancer (it doesn’t — but it can contribute to other cancer-causing habits and conditions).