The Relationship Between Stress and Cancer

The links between stress and damage to our immune system, and the link between stress and cancer, are a key focus of medical researchers.

It is now known, that long term stress causes our body’s immune system to break down, making us more susceptible to illness, infections, viruses and autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel disease, Graves’ disease and diabetes.

There are two aspects to the link between stress and cancer, that researchers have been studying:

  1.   Does stress cause cancer, and
  2.   Does stress cause the cancer to spread faster?

While some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, others are not so clear.

However, recent studies have clearly indicated that stress has a significant effect on the promotion of the growth and the spread of some forms of cancer.

So, while the research is there is uncertainty as to whether stress causes cancer, there is now clear evidence, that stress is a significant contributor to the growth and spread of some forms of cancer.

Put simply, the damage that stress does to our body, makes it much easier for cancer to spread and grow.

1.  Stress damages our immune system

When we get stressed, we get sick more often

We’ve all experienced it.

We’ve been under pressure at work and at home for too long and we’re feeling tired and run-down – common symptoms of stress.

The next thing that happens, is we get sick – we catch a cold, or the flu or another virus.

We know it’s because we’re run-down, but we rarely make the connection between stress and our immune system.

The common health problems we get when we’re under stress, such as rashes, itching, hives, unexplained or frequent “allergy” attacks, frequent colds, infections or herpes sores, are all indicators of a damaged immune system.

What is our immune system?

Our immune system is our body’s defence against infection and illness, and comprises cells, tissues and organs, that work together to protect the body by identifying a variety of threats, including viruses, bacteria, parasites, and our own mutant cells, and distinguishes them from the body’s own healthy tissue.

Its major components include the primary lymphoid organs of the immune system (the thymus and bone marrow), and the secondary lymphatic tissues such as spleen, tonsils, lymph vessels, lymph nodes and adenoids.

Problems with our immune system can result in diseases that affects us in one of two ways:

  • a weakening of our immune system, which decreases our body’s ability to fight these threats, leaving us more vulnerable to infections, viruses and also cancer, as well as delayed wound healing and impaired responses to vaccination;
  • an overactive immune system (autoimmune diseases), where our immune system produces antibodies that instead of fighting infection, actually attack our body’s own tissues, causing diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel disease, Graves’ disease and Type 1 diabetes.

2. How does our immune system work?

The job of our immune system is to fight off disease and illness

To understand the impact of stress on our immune system, it is important to understand the way that our immune system works.

Your body makes several types of white blood cells to fight off disease or illness.  One of these (produced in our bone marrow), called lymphocytes, circulate in the blood and lymph fluid and help our immune system by making antibodies and other substances that battle cancer and infections and by killing cells that are infected or that are foreign to your body.

Our body has three main lymphocytes:

  • B cells (or B lymphocytes), or B cells, make antibodies that help our body fight infections, by attacking bacteria, viruses, and toxins;
  • T cells (or T lymphocytes), attack foreign cells, cancer cells, and cells infected with a virus; and
  • NK cells (natural killer cells), which contain granules with enzymes, that can kill tumor cells or cells infected with a virus.

All these lymphocytes work together as part of our immune system, where NK cells work with T-cells, to destroy mutant cells and virus infected cells where T-cells are the cells that attack and destroy tumorous cells by releasing cytokines.

Stress causes our immune system to break down, resulting in serious disease

Numerous scientific studies have now firmly proven the link between our body’s stress response, and the healthy functioning of our immune system.

Ground breaking research led by Carnegie Mellon University, found that under chronic stress, the body lost its natural ability to regulate its inflammatory response, which illustrated for the first time how this leads to the development and progression of disease.

Cortisol, we’ve learnt, is one of the stress hormones that is released as part of our body’s stress response, and amongst other things, cortisol acts to regulate and reduce inflammation in the body.

However, elevated levels of cortisol over a long period of time, effects the way our body controls inflammation.

One finding is that it appears that cortisol may actually degrade the disease and illness fighting white blood cells, and so as the number of white blood cells decreases, the efficiency of the immune system decreases, opening us up for illness and disease.

Another finding, is that this long-term exposure to cortisol results in the immune cells in our tissues becoming less sensitive to the hormone, due to changes with the cytokine production within the immune system, and so we suffer from immune dysregulation and chronic inflammation.

It is then this out of control inflammation that in turn, promotes the development and progression of the diseases, that result from the weakened immune system (viruses, infections, cancer) and the autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, irritable bowel disease, Graves’ disease and Type 1 diabetes.

A good example of this mechanism, is the Carnegie Mellon University research, which showed that people suffering from psychological stress are more susceptible to developing the symptoms of the common cold.

With the common cold, the symptoms are not caused by the virus; instead, they are the side effects caused by our body’s inflammatory response, in its efforts to fight the infection.

The greater then, our body’s inflammatory response to the cold virus, the greater is the likelihood that we will experience these symptoms of a cold.

What’s more, many retrospective studies into the stress/disease relationship, found that up to 80% of patients reported uncommon psychological stress in the period before onset of the disease.

In addition, studies that specifically investigated the effect of increases in the epinephrine and norepinephrine stress hormones, have reported weaknesses in immune system when elevated levels of these were found in the blood.

While increases in epinephrine and norepinephrine have been observed to promote the release and redistribution of white blood cells, including T-cells and B-cells, these increased stress hormone levels, at the same time, also decreased the efficiency of the T-cells and B-cells.

Increased levels of cortisol, reduces the effectiveness of our disease fighting T-cells

In addition, the corresponding increase in cortisol during chronic stress, also significant impacts the integrity of our immune system.

Beyond this, issues such as have also been attributed and development and progression of cancer.

There is now a known direct link, between the increased cortisol levels and a marked decrease in T-cells, which reduces the ability of the T-cells to locate and destroy mutant and foreign cells, therefore leaving the antigens undisturbed by the T-cells, which may then develop into cancerous tumors.

The effects of acute and chronic stress on B-cells are still under investigation, but it is thought to be similar to those on T-cells.

In further support of the stress-immune system link, is the ongoing research that also suggests that chronic stress decreases NK cell activity through a profound effect on cytokine production.

Our immune system may take a long time to recover, after the stress has gone – although it will recover

Once the chronic stress has passed, depending on both the individual and the length of the stress, our immune system may still take a long time to recover.

Studies that have looked at changes in immune level and disease in population groups following natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes, have found that a compromised immune system has remained for months following the disaster event.

Another study of current and former caregivers of spouses with Alzheimer’s disease, found that the effect of their NK-cells were significantly reduced when compared with a control group and that on average, the reduction of the immune system continued for three years after the role as caregiver ended.

3. Stress and cancer

There are two aspects to the link between stress and cancer, that has been the focus for researchers:

  1. Does stress cause cancer, and
  2. Does stress cause the cancer to spread faster?

While some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, others are not so clear.

However, recent studies have clearly indicated that stress has a significant effect on the promotion of the growth and the spread of some forms of cancer.

So, while the research is there is uncertainty as to whether stress causes cancer, there is now clear evidence, that stress is a significant contributor to the growth and spread of some forms of cancer.

Put simply, the damage that stress does to our body, makes it much easier for cancer to spread and grow.

Stress as a cause of cancer?

There are more than 200 different types of cancer, where they are normally names for the organs or tissues where the cancers form, or by the type of cells that formed them.

While there are both known causes and risk factors, as well as unknown, for the development of cancer, ultimately, cancer is the result of cells that grow uncontrollably and do not die.

In the body, normal cells follow an orderly path of growth, division, and death, but when this process breaks down, cancer begins to form.  Unlike regular cells, cancer cells do not experience programmatic death and instead continue to grow and divide, which leads to a mass of abnormal cells that grows out of control.

The two primary theories for the development of cancer are that all cancers are the result of a foreign microbe or pathogen, and/or that there is a gene somewhere in the DNA structure, that produces an abnormal or mutant cell.

In a precisely regulated immune system, T-cells and NK cells keep these invading microbe/mutant cells under control.

When a cell does mutate and its genetic structure deviates from normal, it is considered as an endogenous antigen and becomes subject to destruction by the T-cells and NK-cells, whose role, if we remember, is to search for and destroy malignant, mutant cells and virus infected cells.

If, however, the ability of these T-cells and NK-cells to perform their critical defensive role is suppressed, the likelihood of a cancerous tumor is increased.

As we have seen above, there is a clear and proven impact on the performance of our immune systems T-cells and NK-cells, when they are subject to the long term effects of chronic stress.

Stress helps cancer to spread and grow faster

An Australian Monash University research team have now shown that in mice, the stress chemicals released as part of our body’s stress response, cause cancer cells to move faster and spread to other parts of the body.

The research team, found that the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) as part of the activation of the body’s parasympathetic nervous system/Stress Engine, restructured the lymphatic system, increasing both the size and the number of lymphatic vessels in and around cancer tumors.

These changes also act to increase the flow rate of the lymph fluid through these vessels, helping the cells to move more quickly out of the tumor.

These two factors combine to turn the lymphatic system into a “super-highway”, to carry and spread tumor cells throughout the body, resulting in a spread of cancer in stress mice six times greater than normal.

When the stress is reduced, the lymphatic system reverts to normal

While stress levels in a patient typically increase after cancer is diagnosed, an important discovery of this same Monash University study, was that by reducing the stress, they could prevent the spread of the cancer that was occurring through the changes to the lymphatic system.

The study used medication, containing beta blockers to prevent the stress response, where the beta blockers blocked the stress chemical epinephrine (adrenalin) to limit the heart rate and blood pressure increases, that occur during the stress response.

The study found that when the beta blockers were given to the mice with cancer, the stress response ceased, and changes to the lymphatic system that led to the increased cancer spread, were reversed.

While these initial studies are extremely positive, further research is required as to whether the natural techniques for stress management, that also act to switch-off the body’s stress response, have the same effect as the medication.

So what is the solution to living and working in a 24/7 always-on stressful environment?

And more importantly, reducing stress related high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes.

In our 24/7 always-on “real world”, our lives will always be stressful – with work, family, relationship, finance, social, health and other challenges, we can’t simply walk away or escape the situations that cause us stress.

The answer therefore, is stress management solution that allows us, at any time, to control our body’s response to a stressful situation and to the symptoms of stress when we feel them.

A system that allows us to:

  1.    switch-off our “Stress Engine” and stop the effects of the dangerous stress chemicals in our body, and switch-on our body’s “Relaxation Engine” and the flow of the neurotransmitters that encourage the relaxation and healing process.
  2.   relieve the symptoms of stress that we feel, and switch-on calm, when we’re feeling tense and frustrated; switch on energy when we are exhausted; switch on sleep, when our mind is still spinning; and switch-on concentration when our brain feels scrambled.
  3.   repair the damage done to our body by past stress, but more importantly, to defend and protect our body against the effects of future stress.

A stress management solution that will allow us to live, work and love life – healthy and happy – within our 24/7 always-on high stress environment – safe from the damage that stress causes.


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