How Exactly does STRESS ‘Cause’ Cancer?

You have all heard that stress ‘causes’ chronic disease – and cancer in particular – but how does this happen? Let’s explore the science behind stress and cancer.

We can think of ‘stress’ as a way for us to respond and react appropriately to demands in our environment – it is a necessary part of survival. On a biological level, stress activates the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, causing a host of chemicals to be released such as cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. These chemicals are part of an evolutionary response that prime the body for ‘fight or flight’ – making our heart pump harder and faster, increasing blood sugar levels and improving blood flow to vital organs and muscles needed in the moment that we are confronted with something that threatens our survival, like being faced with a raging bear. Only now we live in an age where ‘fight or flight’ is experienced by many of us far too often and for extended periods of time – even in situations that don’t necessary depend on our ‘survival’.

Why are many of us in a constant, prolonged state of fight or flight? Because we’re faced with stressors of all kinds in our daily environment. When we speak of ‘stress’, most people often think of ‘mental stress’, but overlook the common physical stressors in their daily lives. Physical stressors include poor health choices, disrupted sleep, and lack of physical activity. Night time shift work is especially problematic, as it disrupts critical rhythms in the body, resulting in chronic low levels of melatonin – which has been clinically correlated with an increased risk for breast and colorectal cancer. Beyond physical stressors, there are also the chronic mental-emotional stressors that affect a large portion of the population.

Anxiety, depression, pessimism, suppressed emotions and fear are just some of the emotions that cripple the lives of many, preventing them from living authentically with gratitude, joy, love and happiness.

Its important to recognize that not all stress is bad. We need some form of stress in order to maintain healthy living. This is known as ‘positive stress’. A good example is moderate exercise (a positive, physical stress) to maintain bone density, lower cortisol levels and strengthen our cardiovascular system among other health benefits. When the negative stress outweighs the positive stress, problems arise. The reality is that we live in a society where stress is ongoing and our bodies are not designed to deal with chronic, relentless, negative stress. This is where physiological and psychological problems begin.

Where is your stress coming from? How often are you in fight or flight mode? Awareness is the first step to understanding how to correct for the imbalance.

Stress Creates a ‘Perfect Storm’ for Cancer

Short term, positive stress boosts our immune system, increasing resistance to cancers. On the other hand, a chronic elevation of stress hormones has shown to increase apoptosis (cell death) of white blood cells – the cells that fight off infection.

With chronic elevations of stress hormones, there appears to be a shift in immunity to a state where tumor cells are able to evade the “check-points” in our immune system that normally destroy abnormal (cancerous) cells.

Breast cancer – the 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths in Canadian women – has a strong association with stress. It appears the degree of risk association varies with the timing of the stress exposure, with early life stress demonstrating the strongest association with breast cancer. Telomeres which are found at the ends of chromosomes, serve to protect and stabilize the chromosomes thereby reducing the risk of mutations – much like tape and the ends of a rope help keep the threads from unravelling. Research has shown that adverse childhood events, manifesting early or later on in life as anxiety and distress, have a direct correlation with telomere length resulting in shorter telomeres. Shortened telomeres lead to chromosomal instability, making your genes more susceptible to genetic mutations that can lead to cancer cell formation.

Cortisol, one of the main stress hormones produced by the adrenal glands plays a big part in the development of cancer. Estrogen is a well known ‘mitogen’ or cancer-promoting agent. Cortisol directly impacts estrogenic activity of the glands of the breast (known as ‘mammary glands’), possibly facilitating tumour activity during periods of stress. Prolonged periods of stress leading to elevated levels of cortisol has also been shown to inhibit our body’s ability to destroy abnormal (cancerous or pre-cancerous) cells in the mammary glands by way of apoptosis. Another way cortisol contributes to the development of breast cancer is by its ability to down-regulate the expression and activity of a critical gene involved in DNA repair – known as BRCA1 (breast cancer 1) gene. If the BRCA1 gene doesn’t function properly, it compromises our body’s innate ability to fix damaged DNA, making it more likely that a cancerous cell in the breast or ovary can develop.

Does stress actually cause cancer in and of itself? Not exactly, but substantial research proves it is a major contributor.

If the effects of stress, combined with hereditary factors and other influences that impact the function of your genes (known as ‘epi-genetic’ factors) happen to line up to create the perfect storm, cancer will develop.

Essentially, You Have Two Choices: Remove the Stressor or Change the Way You Respond

How do you respond to stress? We all react to stress differently and that is what makes each and every one of us unique. However, we cannot deny the fact that chronic stress can be hard on our physical and mental state. While we can’t always remove the stressor (after all, project deadlines must be met) we can change the we handle the stress and alter the way our body responds to it.

If you want to minimize the damaging effects of stress and prevent cancer, it is paramount you learn to perceive and react to the stress in a healthy way.

Positive psycho-social factors – such as strong social support, humour, prayer and spiritual practice – have been linked with elevated levels of natural killer cells – potent white blood cells that destroy viral-infected and cancer cells. In a study conducted on patients with ovarian cancer, it was found that coping with their illness in a positive manner resulted in higher levels of natural killer cells. Another study found that women who had experienced a significant life stressor, but lacked the emotional support, were more likely to get breast cancer than women who had good emotional support during the stressful period.

Even though some stressors are unavoidable, we have the power to decide what is going to create negative stress and what is not. To do this, we have to change our perception of a stressful event and alter our response to those situations. Having a better awareness of all the things that create stress in your life and observing how you respond – mentally and physically – is a good place to start. In my practice, I teach my patients different ways to react and cope with stress using mind-body techniques that include counselling, biofeedback, clinical hypnotherapy, acupuncture and craniosacral therapy.

‘Our environment shapes our beliefs and our beliefs shape our biology’

– Bruce Lipton (author of ‘The Biology of Belief)

Don’t be a victim of the environment within and around you. Instead, seek to create an environment that will nourish you – inside and out. There are many ways to liberate yourself from the imprisonment of stress, worry and anxiety. The body heals best when there is harmony on all levels – physically, emotionally and spiritually. It begins with awareness and the desire to live your best life. Give us a call and we’ll help you on your journey!

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