The latest research, insight, and learnings in supportive cancer care.

Can Stress Cause Cancer?

Oftentimes when we’re asking ourselves this question it comes from a place of anxiety or self blame. Yes, our habits, experiences, and lifestyles impact our health, but it’s important to acknowledge the complexity of this relationship.

We are all doing our best to get by. We would all love to have a life with no stress where healthy habits come naturally, free of temptation with endless energy. The reality is we are human. We all engage in habits that negatively impact our health. The first step in managing this is acknowledging that we’re imperfect when it comes to health. Understanding without blaming or shaming ourselves, with an eye on how we can make tweaks towards healthier lifestyles will have the greatest impact on our future habits. Essentially, we don’t want to stress about stress.

The human body is a complex web of interconnected systems, and the mind-body connection is a phenomenon that highlights their interdependence. Psychological stress, often triggered by various life events, can initiate a series of physiological responses that contribute to cancer-related processes.

Hormonal Response

When faced with stress, the body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. While these hormones are essential for the body's "fight or flight" response, chronic stress can lead to an imbalance in these hormones. Elevated cortisol levels, for instance, have been associated with cellular changes that promote tumor growth.


Chronic stress can lead to persistent low-grade inflammation. Inflammation, when prolonged, creates an environment conducive to cancer development. It encourages the production of molecules that promote cell growth, angiogenesis (formation of blood vessels that nourish tumors), and tissue remodeling, all of which are processes that play a role in cancer progression.

Immune Suppression

Stress can weaken the immune system's ability to identify and eliminate abnormal cells, including cancer cells. This compromised immune response can allow cancer cells to evade detection and flourish.

Epigenetic Modifications

Recent research has revealed that psychological stress can induce epigenetic changes. These changes can affect how genes are expressed, potentially leading to alterations in cellular function and contributing to cancer development.

Telomere Shortening

Telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes, naturally shorten as we age. Chronic stress, however, has been linked to accelerated telomere shortening, which is associated with increased cancer risk and overall health decline.

Coping Mechanisms

In response to stress, individuals may adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, or unhealthy eating habits. These behaviors are established risk factors for cancer.


While the link between stress and cancer is complex, it's clear that chronic stress can impact our bodies in ways that may contribute to cancer development and progression. The evolving research underscores the importance of holistic health and the need to address both physical and psychological well-being. By managing stress through healthy lifestyle choices and seeking support when needed, we can take proactive steps toward reducing the potential impact of stress on cancer risk and outcomes.

Know someone who's stressed about stress? Share below!


Reiche, E. M. V., Nunes, S. O. V., & Morimoto, H. K. (2004). Stress, depression, the immune system, and cancer. The Lancet Oncology, 5(10), 617-625.

Cohen, S., Janicki-Deverts, D., & Miller, G. E. (2007). Psychological stress and disease. JAMA, 298(14), 1685-1687.

Epel, E. S., Blackburn, E. H., Lin, J., Dhabhar, F. S., Adler, N. E., Morrow, J. D., & Cawthon, R. M. (2004). Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 101(49), 17312-17315.

Sephton, S. E., Lush, E., Dedert, E. A., Floyd, A. R., Rebholz, W. N., Dhabhar, F. S., & Spiegel, D. (2013). Diurnal cortisol rhythm as a predictor of lung cancer survival. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 30, S163-S170.

Lutgendorf, S. K., & Andersen, B. L. (2015). Biobehavioral approaches to cancer progression and survival: Mechanisms and interventions. American Psychologist, 70(2), 186-197.

Carlson, L. E., & Angen, M. (2004). Distress management through Mindfulness Meditation: Effects on psychological symptomatology, sense of control, and spiritual experiences. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(3), 590-598.

Cruess, D. G., Antoni, M. H., McGregor, B. A., Kilbourn, K. M., Boyers, A. E., Alferi, S. M., ... & Schneiderman, N. (2000). Cognitive-behavioral stress management reduces serum cortisol by enhancing benefit finding among women being treated for early stage breast cancer. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62(3), 304-308.

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