Under the Hood

Can Stress Cause Cancer? Here’s A Warning From Experts

Chronic stress is known to negatively affect the body. In some cases it could trigger the development of inflammation and cardiometabolic disease.

Stress can also contribute to the development of cancer. Previous studies showed that in certain types of cancer, it can speed up the progression and worsen outcomes of the disease.

But can stress be the main cause of the disease? The National Cancer Institute reported that there is currently a small number of studies proving the direct link between cancer and stress. 

But for Shelley Tworoger, an associate professor of population science at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., there are a number of factors that connect cancer risk to the mental condition. Chronic stress and distress activate pathways that support the production of stress hormones "in a way your body wasn't really designed for,” she said.  

Previous research showed that the continuous activation of such pathways can lead to changes in the body, such as altered metabolism, increased levels of certain hormones and shortening of telomeres, or the caps at the ends of DNA that prevent damage, Live Science reported

These changes could then contribute to the development and progression of cancer, Tworoger said. Chronic stress weakens the immune system, which also allows cancer cells to continue to spread across the body due to lack of natural protection. 

There is "growing evidence that chronic stress can affect the cancer risk and progression through immune dysregulation," Elisa Bandera, a professor and chief of Cancer Epidemiology and Health Outcomes at the Rutgers Cancer Institute in New Jersey, said. 

Tworoger and her team recently conducted a study that found the people who were socially isolated had about a 1.5-fold increased risk of developing ovarian cancer. The group who had more post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms also had an increased risk of developing the same disease. 

Another study suggested that work stress potentially contributes to the increased risk of developing colorectal, lung or esophageal cancer. 

Tworoger noted there are "more and more evidence" showing how decreasing stress could help improve survival and quality of life for patients diagnosed with cancer. She added some clinics are already using mindfulness or yoga interventions to help cancer survivors.

Stress Yoga, deep breathing, meditation and exercising can bring down some stress related to the coronavirus pandemic. Pixabay