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Exploring the connection between stress and cancer risk

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Published on 13 December 2023

Stress is a perfectly normal reaction to situations or events that cause us to feel worried or under pressure. Too much stress, however, can have several negative impacts on our state of mind and our physical health. Experiencing ongoing high levels of stress is what is known as chronic stress.

People that have high-pressure jobs, have financial concerns or are going through family issues often experience large amounts of stress. There is a common belief that having constantly high levels of stress in your life can increase your risk of developing cancer.

Being diagnosed with a serious illness is also a major stressor. Finding out that you or a loved one has cancer is an incredibly difficult and stressful time. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, they experience a sudden rush of powerful emotions. The process of seeking treatment and the effects of the medical response to cancer can also be traumatic and physically painful. Cancer patients often find that they must cope with not only the disease itself but also the impact of chronic stress.

In this article, we’ll look closely at the connection between stress and cancer risk. We’ll explore the idea that stress causes cancer and look at why stress is bad for cancer patients. If you are concerned that your stress levels could cause cancer, or make cancer worse, you’ll find the answers you are looking for below.

What is Stress?

Anytime the human mind feels that it is dealing with too much pressure or facing an immediate threat, it goes into a stress response. Our stress response is designed to protect us from harm and is often referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response or the defence cascade. These terms refer to the fact that the stress response was developed by our bodies as a survival mechanism.

A sudden spike in stress allowed us to react quickly when faced with a sudden life-threatening danger posed by animals or other people. When we feel threatened, our bodies release high levels of hormones such as epinephrine and norepinephrine. Adrenalin surges through our central nervous systems. We become hyper-alert, our heart rate increases, our blood pressure goes up significantly, and our blood sugar levels rise.

When we are in a state of stress, our bodies are primed to face the perceived threat by either going into battle or running for our lives. Our blood becomes more oxygenated, and our bodies increase the conversion of glycogen to glucose, priming our muscles for action. Our skin becomes flushed as blood rushes to the muscles and away from non-essential functions. The pupils of our eyes dilate so as to take in lighter and improve our vision. Our blood vessels dilate to send more oxygen and blood to our muscles. We experience racing thoughts and focus on the source of the threat and any means of escape.1,2

While the fight or flight stress response worked very well for us when we were in primitive conditions, it can be problematic in the modern world. Certainly, low levels of stress that don’t last for very long can be beneficial. Known as acute stress, low-level short-term stress can help us to avoid immediate dangers, react quickly to situations, or complete pressing tasks on time. But a constant overload of chronic stress on our bodies can lead to several negative outcomes for both our physical and mental health.

Can Stress Cause Cancer?

Many people believe that if you are under chronic stress, you have a much higher risk of cancer than other people. But is this the case? Certainly, it is a long-standing layperson’s belief that too much stress can increase the risk of developing cancer. As well as the commonly held belief that stress can cause cancer, there has been widespread interest in the subject from the medical community. So, what does the science and the research say? Can too much stress cause cancer to develop in the body?

The answer, it turns out, is still unclear. There have been studies on how stress impacts our immune systems and how these factors into the development of breast, prostate, gastric, lung, and skin cancers. These studies and corresponding research showed that chronic stress can cause negative responses in the body’s immune system and its inflammatory response.3

Other studies have found no relationship between a person’s stress levels and the risk of developing prostate cancer, breast cancer, or lung cancer. 4,5,6,7,8 Every study conducted, however, has stated that there is a need for continued research into the link between cancer and stress.

The existing scientific research into stress and cancer makes the case that stress’s physical effects can dramatically lower the immune system. A weakened immune system can create a more hospitable microenvironment for certain cancer cells to develop.

People who are under chronic stress may also be more likely to engage in behaviours that are unhealthy and can lead to cancer, such as excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, being sedentary, and overeating. Chronic stress can also change the levels of hormones in the body, making a person more susceptible to developing certain types of cancer.

To sum up, no one study conclusively links stress with cancer without another study contradicting it. It can be said that lowering stress levels is beneficial for our overall health. Being healthier overall will decrease the risk of developing cancer.

How Does Stress Affect People with Cancer?

What if you already have been diagnosed with cancer? Can stress make cancer worse? Why stress is bad for cancer patients?

It seems obvious that having to cope with a cancer diagnosis is incredibly difficult. Even the most resilient of people will find that their stress levels are raised when faced with a cancer diagnosis. But can chronic stress make a cancer tumour worse?

One study showed that since chronic stress lowers our immune systems, it can cause tumorigenesis and speed up cancer development.9 Another study revealed that the psychological impacts of stress, such as depression and anxiety, can cause metastatic cancer cells to develop faster.10

The psychological effects of stress can result in the build-up of hormones such as neuroendocrine, catecholamines, and cortisol. These hormones change the way our cells react to attacks and the amounts of oxygen in our bodies. Stress speeds up tumour angiogenesis and causes significant tumour cell proliferation. While every study calls for more research, it seems very likely that high-stress levels play a major role in how quickly cancer progresses.

The Link Between Oxidative Stress and Cancer

Oxidative stress occurs when the levels of free radicals in our bodies outnumber the levels of antioxidants. Free radicals are molecules that have unstable levels of oxygen. While free radicals are a natural occurrence in the body and do play a vital role in our systems, if they are not kept in check by antioxidants, they can damage our cells.

Free radicals called reactive oxygen species (ROS) can initiate and encourage tumorigenesis, cause cell death, and stimulate the proliferation of cancer cells.11 Increased oxidative stress results in chronic inflammation, damages DNA and causes DNA to mutate, and promotes genome instability.12 All of these conditions cause cancer to spread and become worse, resulting in a possibly life-threatening outcome. It is recommended that cancer patients closely monitor their levels of oxidative stress and keep them as low as possible.

How to Manage Your Stress Levels

Stress is unavoidable, but we can limit the effect that stress has on our physical and mental health. For people living with a cancer diagnosis, managing stress can help them to achieve a better quality of life and can even help to prolong their life. Here are some simple techniques you can use to manage your stress levels.


Practice Mindfulness Techniques

Mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation have been shown to have a calming effect on the mind and body. Meditation can act to quiet racing thoughts, ease anxiety and depression, and bring us out of the fight or flight stress response.


Stay Connected to Family and Friends

Cancer patients that receive more support from family and friends have much lower levels of stress than those who become isolated. If you are battling cancer, it is imperative to not cut yourself off from people.


Get Plenty of Exercise

Exercise is a great natural way to limit the effects of stress on your mind and your body. Even just the simple acts of going for a walk, performing stretching exercises, or lifting small amounts of weight can help decrease stress.


See a Professional Therapist

A professional therapist can help you to find the right techniques to lower your stress levels.  Talk therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are particularly effective in lowering stress.


While there is a mixture of professional opinions, the evidence does point toward the fact that stress can create a microenvironment where cancer can thrive and exacerbates existing cancers. Lowering stress levels will minimise the risk of developing cancer and help to fight against any existing cancers.

Cancer patients can lower their stress levels without the need for harsh medication by using Lactium®. Clinically proven to be effective in relieving stress, Lactium® is natural with no side effects. Made from hydrolysed milk protein, Lactium® is a natural way to reduce stress.


To find out which products containing Lactium® are suitable for you, contact us!


1 PubMed: DOI: 31082164
2 PubMed: DOI: 10.17179/excli2017-480
3 PubMed: DOI: 10.3389/fonc.2020.01492
4 PubMed: DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.12.004
5 PubMed:  DOI: 10.1002/pon.4740
6 PubMed: DOI: 10.1002/ijc.31955
7 PubMed: DOI: 0.2217/fon.10.142
8 PubMed: DOI: 10.2217/fon.10.142
9 PubMed: DOI: 10.3389/fonc.2020.01492
10 PubMed: DOI: 10.2217/fon.10.142
11 PubMed: DOI: 10.1016/j.ccell.2020.06.001
12 PubMed: DOI: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2010.09.006