Can stress cause cancer?

  • Stress does not directly increase cancer risk
     
  • But it can be harder for some people to keep healthy during stressful times, which can lead to an increased risk of cancer
     
  • Feeling stressed sometimes is normal, but if it’s been going on for a while, talk to your doctor – they can help you to find positive ways of managing stress that work best for you

This page provides information about stress and risk of cancer. If you have been diagnosed with cancer we have separate information on coping emotionally. 

 

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

The best quality studies have followed up many people for several years. They have found no evidence that those who are more stressed are more likely to get cancer. 

Some people wonder whether stress causes breast cancer. But overall, the evidence for this has been poor. And a large study of over 100,000 women in the UK in 2016 showed no consistent evidence between stress and breast cancer.

 

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

It’s very common to feel stressed, and it’s likely that everyone will feel stress at some point.

But people respond to stress in different ways. This can lead to changes in a person’s day to day routine that can impact their cancer risk.

For some, stressful times can make it more difficult to be healthy. Remember, 4 in 10 cancer cases could be prevented. Things to think about include:

 

Smoking

Do you only smoke, or smoke more when you are stressed? Remember, it’s never too late to get free stop smoking support.

 

Diet

Stress may change what and how much you eat. Having a healthy, balanced diet is a proven way to reduce cancer risk.

 

Alcohol

Do you drink alcohol when you’re stressed or more than you usually would? Don’t forget, the less alcohol you drink, the lower the risk of cancer.

 

Physical activity

Stress may affect how much you move or exercise during the day. But being more active can help to prevent cancer. What counts as exercise may surprise you.

 

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 doctor

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

 

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.

 

We regularly review new research on the causes of cancer to make sure our information is up to date and based on the best quality evidence. We develop our information by looking at lots of research carried out over many years. So, although new research comes out all the time, it is unlikely that one new study would change our position on a topic.  

Some studies are better than others at telling us about how different factors affect cancer risk. These are some of the things we consider:

  • Did the study look at cells, animals or people?

Studies in animals and cells can help scientists understand how cancer works, but they can’t always tell us how it’s relevant to humans. So we focus on studies in people.

  • How big is the study and how long did it go on for?

Studies on small numbers of people aren’t as reliable, because results are more likely to happen by chance. And studies that only follow people for a short amount of time can miss long-term effects. So we mainly look at studies that follow thousands of people over many years.

  • Did the study account for other factors that could affect someone’s cancer risk?

There are lots of factors that can affect someone’s risk of cancer. Studies should take known risk factors into account. For example, if a study is looking at air pollution and lung cancer, it should also look at whether participants smoked.

  • Where is the study published and who funded it?

It’s important to see if a study is published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. This means that other experts have checked the results. It’s also important to know who funded the study, as this can affect the findings. For example, Cancer Research UK disregards research funded by the tobacco industry.

How to find accurate information on cancer

Sometimes news outlets exaggerate stories about cancer. It’s helpful to think about some of the questions above to judge a news story. But the most important thing is to get information from a trusted source– for example our website and the NHS.

One way of knowing if you can trust health information is by checking if the Patient Information Forum (PIF) has accredited it. The PIF makes sure that information is based on up to date evidence and is high quality.

The Patient Information Forum tick looks like this.

Patient Information Tick

You can read more about spotting fake news on cancer on our blog.

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.

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. doi:10.1186/s13058-016-0733-1.

 

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