Can Stress Contribute To Cancer Risk And Progression?

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There is more and more data that points to a prominent role of chronic stress in cancer growth and spread. The influence of psycho-social factors on the development and progression of cancer has been a longstanding hypothesis. In fact, epidemiological and clinical studies over the past 30 years have provided strong evidence for links between chronic stress, depression and social isolation related to the onset and progression of cancer.

A recently published study shows that for men, prolonged exposure to work–related stress has been linked to an increased likelihood of lung, colorectal and stomach cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma. [1]

These associations were observed in men who had been exposed to 15 to 30+ years of work-related stress. The most stressful jobs included firefighter, industrial engineer, aerospace engineer, mechanic foreman, vehicle and railway equipment repair worker and physicians.

The study also shows that perceived stress is not limited to high workload and time constraints. Customer service, sales commissions, responsibilities, the participant’s anxious temperament, job insecurity, financial problems, challenging or dangerous work conditions, employee supervision, interpersonal conflict, and a difficult commute were all sources of stress listed by the participants.

Another study showed that women who lost a spouse through separation, divorce or death had a higher risk for breast cancer. There is data that people who lived through the Holocaust as children have a higher risk for developing cancer.

The body responds to physical, mental, or emotional pressure by releasing stress hormones (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) that increase blood pressure, speed heart rate, and raise blood sugar levels. They also stimulate cancer growth. [2]

Under persistent, chronic stress our adrenals secrete cortisol, that regulates a variety of important cardiovascular, metabolic, immunologic and homeostatic functions. Excessive levels of stress for prolonged periods of time, stimulate growth of tumor cells, and prevent cancer cell death. Stress also inhibits chemotherapy-induced cancer cell apoptosis (death) and promotes cancer cell survival. [3]

Chronic stress decreases the levels of Dopamine (pleasure hormone) that retards tumor growth by inhibiting angiogenesis (blood supply to the cancer), and by doing so stimulates cancer growth. [3]

A number of studies have demonstrated that stress can disrupt circadian rhythms in ways that favor tumor growth and metastasis. Similarly, nightshift work, which is known to disrupt endocrine rhythms, is considered a risk factor for breast and colorectal cancers. {4]

Stress also can affect your immune system. Studies show that stress interferes with the way your immune system works. In particular, it affects cells that find and that kill emerging cancer cells.

People under stress also may develop certain behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, or drinking alcohol, which increase a person’s risk for cancer.

Some data suggests that patients can develop a sense of helplessness or hopelessness when stress becomes overwhelming. This response is associated with higher rates of death, although the mechanism for this outcome is unclear. It may be that people who feel helpless or hopeless do not seek treatment when they become ill, give up prematurely, fail to adhere to potentially helpful therapy, engage in risky behaviors such as drug use, or do not maintain a healthy lifestyle, resulting in premature death. [5]

Do not take stress lightly!!!

What can you do about stress?

Removing the cause is the clear answer. But that’s not always possible when it comes to the types of things that cause chronic stress.

So we need to learn how to manage stress:

  • remove yourself from the stressful environment, or just take a break, go on vacation, etc.

  • get enough sleep, at least 7-8 hours

  • meditate, and other relaxation techniques, like yoga, Tai Chi, heart rate variability, etc.

  • regular exercise, but do not over exercise, just go for a regular stroll, walk, hike in a park

  • get a massage, or ‘healing touch therapy’

  • eat healthy, limit sweets and fried foods; sugar rush is always short lived and drains your energy

  • music and aromatherapy

  • find a support group

  • get a pet

  • talk to a professional

For more information on how a healthy lifestyle can improve your life, please schedule an appointment with Dr. Koganski at 215-750-7000 or


[1] Prolonged exposure to work-related stress thought to be related to some cancers. Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) News. 02 28, 2017.

[2] Thaker PH, et al. Chronic stress promotes tumor growth and angiogenesis in a mouse model of ovarian carcinoma. Nat. Med. 2006;12(8):939–944.

[3] Myrthala Moreno-Smith, et al. Impact of stress on cancer metastasis. Future Oncol. 2010 Dec; 6(12): 1863–1881.

[4] Schernhammer ES, et al. Night-shift work and risk of colorectal cancer in the nurses’ health study. J. Natl Cancer Inst. 2003;95(11):825–828.

[5] Accessed 3/4/2017




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