Can stress cause cancer?

Coronavirus and cancer

We know it’s a worrying time for people with cancer, we have information to help. If you have symptoms of cancer contact your doctor.

Read our information about coronavirus and cancer

No, being stressed doesn’t increase the risk of cancer.

Studies have looked at lots of people for several years and found no evidence that those who are more stressed are more likely to get cancer. 

But how you cope with or manage stress could affect your health.

It’s very common to feel stressed, and it’s likely that everyone will feel stress at some point. During stressful times it can be more difficult to be healthy, and might affect lots of things, including;

  • Smoking: do you smoke when you are stressed? Or smoke more than you usually would?
  • Diet: do you eat more when you are stressed? Or eat differently?
  • Alcohol: do you drink when you are stressed? Or drink more than you usually would?
  • Physical activity: do you do less physical activity when you are stressed?

These things can all affect cancer risk, so it’s a good idea to think about how you manage stress, and any tips that might help you to cope.

How can I manage stress?

Feeling stressed is normal, but long periods of stress have been linked to high blood pressure and depression.

If you’re struggling to cope with stress, it’s a good idea to speak to your GP. 

You can find information and tips about coping with stress on the NHS and Mind websites.

If you have been diagnosed with cancer we have information on coping emotionally

There are many cancer myths, including stress, that haven’t been proven to cause cancer. However, there are proven causes of cancer, and things you can do to reduce your risk.

Image showing that mobile phones, plastic bottles and cosmetics do not cause cancer

We regularly review and evaluate newly published research into the causes of cancer in order to shape our health information. And there are key things we look out for to evaluate any new study.

What type of study is it?

Was the study looking at cells in a dish, animals or people? Studies in animals and cells can help scientists understand the basics of cancer but they cannot replicate how things will work in humans.

So, we focus more on studies in people as they can show with much more certainty how something affects the risk of developing cancer in humans. The best studies also account for other factors that could affect someone’s cancer risk, such as whether they smoke or drink.

How many people were in the study, and how long were they followed for? Studies involving only a handful of people aren’t likely to be as reliable, because results are more likely to happen by chance. And studies that only follow people for a short timeframe can miss any potential long-term effects. Therefore, we mainly look at studies that follow hundreds or usually thousands of people for a long time because they give results we can be surer of.

Who carried out the study and where is it published?

It’s important to see if a study was published in a scientific journal and was carried out by scientists that work for a university or known institute. This is because before researchers can publish their findings in a journal, other experts who were not involved in the study will check it is accurate.

How does the study fit in with previous evidence?

Some studies show conflicting results, but we evaluate any new study within the context of all the available research and give more weight to the most rigorous scientific studies.

How to spot fake news about cancer?

Sometimes news outlets can over-inflate stories about cancer, whether it’s a new treatment, or news on what could lower or increase your risk of developing the disease. You can use the same questions we discussed above to judge a study and news story yourself.  For more tips on how to spot fake news visit our blog here.

Heikkila K, Nyberg ST, Theorell T, et al. Work stress and risk of cancer: meta-analysis of 5700 incident cancer events in 116,000 European men and women. Bmj. 2013;346:f165.

 

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