Stress and Cancer
- Results from a small Israeli study suggest that using techniques to reduce stress in women who are at a higher risk for developing breast cancer may improve their quality of life and indirectly reduce the risk of developing certain cancers by helping them be in the mindset to consider or undergo preventative measures.
- The study was published in the respected journal JAMA, which requires other researchers to review the results, `
- Our experts say there’s value in addressing a patient’s stress levels.
- There is no hard data that stress causes cancer, but it can push people towards behaviors like smoking, unhealthy eating and drinking alcohol in excess which all have known associations with cancer. It can also affect your body’s ability to fight the disease if you do develop cancer.
The study, published in 2021 by the respected journal JAMA Network Open, was a randomized clinical trial that included 100 high-risk women with variants of the BRCA genetic mutations.Read More
One of the study’s researchers, Dr. Shahar Lev-Ari of Tel Aviv University’s medical school, says these women will sometimes push off potentially life-saving preventative measures like having a risk-reducing mastectomy and/or oophorectomy.
“We are talking about a population that often consists of young women whose mothers have or had cancer, and who think of the mutation like it’s a ticking bomb,” Dr. Lev-Ari said. “Many remove breasts or ovaries after having children, but some struggle with this decision, and regardless of this, people live with many fears, about the future, about not seeing their kids grow up, and more.”
He notes that participants in the study who did workshops or used tools to promote personal health, relieve stress and tension and strengthen mental soundness showed improvement in quality of life. He evens says some of the women who came into the study without considering preventative procedures eventually saw such a change in their mindset that they ended up making appointments.
“We found the benefits were great — including addressing disturbed sleep and returning it to normal — and we think the results indicate that care for people with mutations should include more psychological elements,” Dr. Lev-Ari told The Times of Israel.
In other words, the results of this study suggest that stress reduction in high-risk women may improve their quality of life and indirectly reduce the risk of developing certain cancers by helping them be in the mindset to consider or undergo preventative measures.
What Do Our Experts Say About Stress and Cancer Risk?
But what do our experts say about the connection between stress and cancer? Well, for starters, it’s important to note that stress does not cause cancer, or to be more specific, no one reputable has ever found any hard evidence of this.
Cancer Prevention: Limiting Your Risk and Knowing the Facts
Dr. Allyson Ocean, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College/New York Presbyterian Hospital previously told SurvivorNet, however, that stress can push people towards behaviors like smoking, unhealthy eating and drinking alcohol in excess which all have known associations with cancer.
“It may be that stress leads people towards unhealthy behaviors that are more directly associated with cancer,” Dr. Ocean said.
When a person is stressed – emotionally, physically or mentally – their body releases the stress hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). And if someone’s body is releasing these hormones constantly over an extended period of time, the resulting rapid heart rate and heightened blood pressure can causes issues and increase your risk for heart conditions, weight gain and diabetes.
Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, Professor and Director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson Cancer Center, previously spoke with SurvivorNet about how chronic stress might not cause cancer, but it can affect how your body fights the disease.
“With regard to cancer, there is little convincing evidence that chronic stress causes cancer initiation,” Dr. Cohen said. “[But] there is extensive evidence that chronic stress can promote cancer growth and progression.”
This, he said, is due to the fact that the constant release of epinephrine and norepinephrine “leads to diverse biological effects of key cancer pathways, including the stimulation of cancer invasion, suppressed immune function, and even reduced efficacy of chemotherapeutic agents.”
Dr. Heather Yeo, Associate Professor of Surgery and Healthcare Policy and Research at Weill Cornell Medical College, also says stress can affect a person’s cancer recovery.
“We know that there have been several studies that have looked at healing and recovery after cancer surgery or have looked at recurrence,” SurvivorNet advisor Dr. Yeo, Associate Professor of Surgery and Healthcare Policy and Research at Weill Cornell Medical College, said. “And we know that 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.”
So, our cancer experts know there’s value in addressing a person’s stress levels. SurvivorNet advisor Dr. Elizabeth Comen sums it up perfectly below:
“It’s important to understand that stress certainly can probably effect the immune system in some ways that we’re still working out, but stress is not unilaterally causing someone’s cancer,” Dr. Comen, a medical oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said. “But it can absolutely effect someone’s experience with the diagnosis when they have that.
“So, it’s so important if a patient is very stressed out and very anxious, that they pay attention to that, that they seek help for that, because that will really affect their treatment moving forward. Not only the experience as they go through it, but also their memories of it, and what we don’t want to see is women have real post-trauma, post traumatic stress disorder from having had a diagnosis of breast cancer.”
Contributing: Caroline Hopkins