Stress and cancer
Everyone feels stressed at some point in their lives. Small levels of stress can be positive, making us more alert and improving our performance. But we now know that long periods of stress can cause mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. And it can contribute to physical health problems such as high blood pressure and stomach ulcers.
Stress and cancer
Many people believe that stress can cause cancer, particularly breast cancer. But the evidence for this has been poor. Stressful events can alter the levels of hormones in the body and affect the immune system. But there is no evidence that these changes could lead to cancer.
Most scientific studies have found that stress does not increase the risk of cancer. One study had even found that high stress levels can actually reduce the risk of breast cancer, by lowering oestrogen levels. And even in the event that stress and cancer are linked, the effects would be very small compared to other factors such as lifestyle, age or family history.
Problems with earlier studies
The studies that have linked stress and cancer have had flawed designs, including very small numbers of participants. Often, people with cancer were asked to recall if they were stressed before they developed their disease. But these people are likely to overestimate their past problems to try and explain their condition, or because cancer itself is very stressful.
Stress is also difficult to define and people can have different views on what they would consider to be stressful. And many studies looked at stress out of context. They ignored things that would affect how someone deals with stress like support from friends and family.
Studies which have specifically tried to address these issues have concluded that stress is not linked to cancer.
Stress can lead to unhealthy behaviours
Stressful situations can make some people more likely to take up unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, overeating or heavy drinking. We know that these behaviours can lead to cancer so in this way, stress could indirectly increase your cancer risk.
Relieve your stress
With regards to cancer, stress isn't something to stress about! But while coping with stress may not reduce your risk of cancer, it can have other health benefits. If you are worried about cancer, you can find more advice in our Worried? section.
The organisation Mind have an excellent range of booklets available on their website. Titles include ‘Understanding Anxiety’, ‘How to stop worrying’ and ‘Relaxation’.
Mind also offers information and support on the MindinfoLine:
- Call 0845 766 0163 (9.15am-5.15pm, Monday-Friday)
- Or e-mail email@example.com
Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team