Everyone feels stressed at some point in their lives and that's completely normal. But long periods of stress can contribute to high blood pressure and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.
Does stress affect cancer risk?
Most scientific studies have found that stress does not increase the risk of cancer.
Some individual studies have suggested that stress can cause cancer, particularly breast cancer. But overall the evidence for this has been poor. The research often only looked at a small number of participants or asked cancer patients to recall if they were stressed before they developed the disease, which isn’t a reliable way of measuring stress. And a large study of over 100,000 women in the UK in 2016 showed no consistent evidence for stress causing breast cancer.
Research that combines the results from many different studies, called meta-analyses, can often provide the most reliable indication of cancer risk. A meta-analysis from 2013, including over 100,000 people, found no link between stress and increased risk of bowel, lung, breast or prostate cancers, which are some of the most common cancers in the UK.
A study in Denmark in 2015 that looked at the association between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and cancer found PTSD didn’t increase the risk of cancer.
This evidence tells us that stress itself doesn’t cause cancer. But stressful situations can sometimes lead us to develop unhealthy habits, such as smoking, overeating or heavy drinking. We know that these things can lead to cancer, so in this way, stress could indirectly increase your cancer risk.
If you’re feeling stressed and would like advice on how to manage it, you can find useful information online at NHS Choices or Mind, the mental health charity. You can also talk to your GP about stress.
Alternatively, the Mind Information line can provide information and support:
- Call 0300 123 3393 (9am-6pm, Monday-Friday)
- E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’ve already been diagnosed with cancer and would like information on coping with stress, you can find more information here.
Schoemaker MJ, Jones ME, Wright LB, et al. Psychological stress, adverse life events and breast cancer incidence: a cohort investigation in 106,000 women in the United Kingdom. Breast Cancer Res. 2016;18(1):72.