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Can Stress Cause Cancer?

Can Stress Cause Cancer?

April 23, 2014 | Author: Susan Silberstein PhD
Can Stress Cause Cancer - Beat Cancer Blog

Does stress cause cancer? Perhaps not directly, but stress can greatly disturb the delicate balance of body chemistry necessary for cancer protection, especially if it is ongoing for a long time. In fact, stress and cancer are potentially connected through all of the body’s biochemical pathways, and they are all interrelated. There are at least 10 important ways stress can cause cancer.

1- Nerve System Function – The human autonomic nervous system is subdivided into the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system – which correspond in general to our two built-in biological responses to stress. The sympathetic system activates the Triple F Response (fright – flight — fight) at the onset of the stressor, and then the parasympathetic system activates the Triple R Response (rest — relax – repair) when the stressor passes.

Both systems are complementary and should be balanced, but if we are undergoing continual or continuous stress, our body is constantly in the heightened awareness phase and never moves to the rest and repair phase.  This will overwork and ultimately exhaust our organs, glands, and natural defenses against disease.

2- Endocrine System Balance – Stress wreaks havoc on the endocrine system, and improper hormone balance may make us more vulnerable to hormone-dependent cancers like breast cancer, prostate cancer and ovarian cancer.  Furthermore, when we are under stress our adrenal glands secrete cortisol, a compound which can increase liver inflammation and even the risk of developing carcinoma of the liver.[i]Cortisol also blocks proliferation of T-cells, an essential component of cell-mediated immunity.

In addition, in response to stressful situations, the liver releases stored sugar known as glycogen,[ii] and sugar is the favorite food of cancer.  To deal with the excess sugar, the pancreas releases insulin – and high levels of insulin and insulin-like growth factors (IGF) may actually be causative of a wide range of cancers including breast, colon cancer, endometrial cancer, prostate and pancreatic cancer.[iii]

3- Immune System Function — A number of clinical observations support the concept of tumor immune surveillance in humans. The increased risk of tumor development in immune-suppressed patients, instances of spontaneous tumor regression, and the appearance of tumor-reactive T cells and B cells in relation to improved prognosis all point to a role for the immune system in suppressing tumor growth.

The immune system — especially our T-cells, macrophage cells and Natural Killer cells — actually plays three primary roles in the prevention of cancer. First, the immune system can protect us from virus-induced tumors by eliminating or suppressing viral infections. Second, it can prevent the establishment of an inflammatory environment conducive to cancer growth. Third, the immune system can specifically identify cancerous and/or precancerous cells and eliminate them before they can cause harm.[iv]

However, stress can greatly compromise the body’s immune responses. At first, stress activates our Natural Killer cells — perhaps our most important cells in fighting against cancer, but as time goes by these cells become overworked and ultimately their action is suppressed.Long term stress is associated with reduction in killer lymphocytes (decreased NK cell and cytotoxic T lymphocytes).[v]  Recent research at Ohio State University actually discovered the “master switch” stress gene in immune system cells that can enable cancer to spread. Researchers say the study suggests that this gene, called ATF3, may be the crucial link between stress and cancer, metastatic spread of cancer, and ultimately cancer death.[vi]


Over the last four decades, scientists working in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) have determined specific biochemical pathways by which the nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system communicate, as well as specific ways in which stressful mental and emotional states can affect those systems and contribute to risk for cancer or inability to recover from cancer.  PNI is a major focus of my Holistic Cancer Coach Certification Training , now available online. If you are interested in learning in depth about the powerful connection between emotional stress and cancer, dozens of stress-reducing techniques that really work, the characteristics of the cancer-prone personality, and the emotional qualities of patients who beat the odds, I know you will love my Holistic Cancer Coach Certification Training. To get a $50 discount coupon, register now and enter the code “fifty” and take the online course on demand — whenever you wish – no time limit.

In future blogs, I will discuss additional ways stress can cause cancer.

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[1] Chida Y, Sudo N, Kubo C. Does stress exacerbate liver diseases? J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2006 Jan;21(1 Pt 2):202-8.


[3] Kaaks R, Energy balance and cancer: The role of insulin and insulin-like growth factor-I. Proc Nutr Soc 2001. Feb;(60)1:91-106

[4] Evans DL, Leserman J, Perkins DO, et al. Stress-associated reductions of cytotoxic T lymphocytes and natural killer cells in asymptomatic HIV infection.Am
J Psychiatry. 1995 Apr;152(4):543-50.

[5] Swann JB and Smyth MJ. Immune surveillance of tumors.Cancer Immunology Program, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia,
and Department of Pathology, University of Melbourne, Parkville, Victoria, Australia.J Clin Invest. 2007;117(5):1137–1146. doi:10.1172/JCI31405. Copyright © 2007, American Society for Clinical Investigation.

[6] The Stress and Cancer Link: ‘Master-Switch’ – Ohio State University. Aug 22, 2013.