Is There a Link between Stress and Cancer?


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Is There a Link between Stress and Cancer?

The relationship between cancer and psychological stress was not well-known before 2012, but medical doctors always suggested to cancer patients to “relax” and “boost their will power” to fight cancer. How can I relax, the cancer patients always asks. They can relax and boost will power by reducing stress

The initial studies on the link between cancer and stress initiated in late 2010s and by 2012, the link had become quite vivid i.e. “stress affects the primary gene that boosts the growth of cancer cells”. Since then, various thorough research studies have supported the finding. You need to understand a few terms before understanding the link between stress and cancer.

What is Cancer Metastasis?

Cancer is also known as silent death, due to its ability to spread silently within the region locally or into other systems. Cancer cells can target nearby lymph nodes, nodules, and tissues. When cancer cells are small and have not formed into a tumor, these are called benign cancer cells. However, when cancer cells start growing by targeting the nearby tissues, lymph nodes, and nodules, then the disease is categorized as advanced cancer.

There are two stages of advanced cancer. One stage is when cancer cells multiply within the same region. The second stage is of Cancer Metastasis, which is the process by which these cancer cells grow into other parts of the body. The Metastatic cells of cancer are similar to the primary cancer cells. For instance, if cancer begins in the lungs and reaches kidneys, the cancer cells in the kidneys will not be similar to the kidney cells, but these will be similar to the lung cells in metastasis.

The understanding of cancer metastasis under the subject of “cancer and stress” is necessary, because stress targets the primary cells in metastasis. For instance, considering the given example, stress will target the cancer cells in the lungs, not those in the kidneys. By empowering the primary cells, stress speeds up the multiplication process of cancer, which makes the treatment difficult.

What is Integrative Oncology?

Cancer treatments are categorized as complementary medicine treatment and alternative therapies; the latter is also known as integrative oncology.  Integrative medicines and therapies work in conjunction with complementary medicine to help treat the mind and spirit of the cancer patient.  This falls under the category of integrative oncology.

Integrative therapies cover a wide variety of treatment administration, such as energy medicine (Tai Chi, Reiki, Jyutsu, etc), yoga, hypnosis, meditation, spiritual therapies, cognitive behavioral therapies, biofeedback, mindfulness, body based oncology practices (massages, reflexology, chiropractic treatments), biological practices (vitamins, herbs, special diets, etc), and medical delivery systems (acupuncture, naturopathy, homeopathy, etc). Integrative oncology assists the reduction of stress in cancer treatment.

Understanding Psychological Stress

Psychological stress develops when people are under emotional, mental, or physical pressure. People experience psychological stress commonly due to work-life balance, poor outcome of hard work, failure in professional or marital life, etc. This kind of psychological stress is usually harmless as its dictation is the body’s response towards unwanted conditions. However, if psychological stress continues, the chances of exasperated physical or mental condition are high.

The body’s response to psychological stress is unique, and it exactingly reflects how the body’s internal systems work. When the body experiences emotional, psychological or physical pressure, it responds with increased sugar level, increased blood pressure, or a sped up heart rate. The body issues these changes to enable the person respond to the change/pressure with increased strength and capacity.

However, if external pressure is uninterruptedly applied on the body, be it emotional, psychological or physical, the body experiences increased heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels for longer amounts of time. It results in deteriorated health and increased pressure on the walls of the heart. People who experience such changes in the body, tend to have initial symptoms of an underlying health condition. These symptoms include headaches, increased heartbeat, anxiety, troubled sleep, etc. If the changes continue, the person may experience chronic heart problems, leading to heart failure.

How Stress Affects Cancer Patients?

Stress affects cancer patients in various ways. One of the most common responses to stress is the addiction to a deviating subject, such as alcohol. Such addictions not only cause poor quality of life, but also weaken the immune system of the sufferer.

An experimental research study shows that mice bearing human tumors showed robust spread of cancer cells when kept isolated from other mice. Another experimental study reveals that triple negative breast cancer survivors on beta blockers during neoadjuvent chemotherapy showed increased signs of survival, compared to those women who didn’t use the beta blockers.

Steven W. Cole et al conducted a research study, which included a joint team of psychological and medical researchers from the University of Texas, the United States National Cancer Institute, UCLA, and the University of Iowa. It explains the body’s responses to neurological and psychological changes in cancer patients. It explains:

Activation of the sympathetic division of the ANS in particular modulates gene expression programming that promote metastasis of solid tumors by stimulating macrophage infiltration, inflammation, angiogenesis, epithelial–mesenchymal transition and tumor invasion, and by inhibiting cellular immune responses and programmed cell death. Hematological cancers are modulated by sympathetic nervous system (SNS) regulation of stem cell biology and hematopoietic differentiation programming.”

Stress Triggers the Master Cancer Gene

The Journal of Clinical Investigation published a finding in 2013, claiming that stress triggers master cancer genes. According to the research, ATF3 is the master gene that affects the response of cancer cells to the changes in the body. When a person experiences stress, ATF3 is triggered and it stimulates the growth and spread of cancer cells within the local region or to other parts of the body. ATF3 activates when the body experiences any kind of change. Its activation is important to maintain internal environment, or homeostasis. In a healthy person, ATF3 stimulates the permanently damaged cells to commit suicide in order to keep homeostasis regulated.

However, in early cancer stages, the immune system recognizes cancer cells as foreign agents and fights to kill them. Cancer cells have the ability to send deceiving signals to the immune system, which causes the immune system to misbehave. According to a research by the Ohio State University, the cancer cells can trigger ATF3 cells in the immune system and activate them, which help the cancer cells to escape the attack of immune system and grow in the body. According to the researchers, if ATF3 gene is suppressed with stress management and appropriate medication, the chances of the growth of cancer cells could be greatly reduced.

One of the biggest challenges in the treatment of cancer is the uncontrollable growth of cancer cells. By suppressing the ATF3 gene (i.e. by medication and stress control), the biggest cancer challenge could be overcome and the disease could be effectively treated.

Does Stress Initiate Cancer?

An in depth study, published in 2011 by Susan K Lutgendorf et al, suggests that the link between psychological factors and cancer has been under observation since around 30 years. Advanced cellular and molecular studies have provided strong evidence of the effect of stress in exasperating cancer in the body. However, there is not any solid evidence of disease initiation due to stress or other psychological factors.

According to the study, the major cause of death from cancer is metastasis i.e. the ability of cancer cells to replicate and grow within the region or other parts of the body. The study suggests that metastasis is resistant to conventional cancer therapy. The study quotes:

Primary neoplasms are biologically heterogeneous and the process of metastasis consists of a series of sequential and selective steps that few cells can successfully complete. The outcome of cancer metastasis depends on multiple interactions between metastatic cells and homeostatic mechanisms that are unique to a given organ micro environment. Therefore, the treatment of metastasis should be targeted not only against cancer cells, but also against the host factors that contribute to and support the progressive growth and survival of metastatic cancer cells. Clinical and epidemiological studies over the last 30 years have identified psychosocial factors including stress, chronic depression and lack of social support as risk factors for cancer progression.”

As the psychological conditions become worse, such as depression, the chronicity of negative impact of the psychological disorders also worsens. Social support alone is not effective. It should be coupled with effective integrative oncology to help the cancer treatment.

What You Should Do?

If you or your loved ones are suffering from cancer, you should immediately speak to your medical doctor, so that the doctor can prepare a plan for stress management. Along with that, make sure to provide adequate social support to the cancer patient. You can also look into integrative oncology therapies with your medical doctor’s advice. Harmless exercises, such as basic meditation could also be practiced. The patients should be provided stress-free lifestyle during their recommended treatment.


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