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Stress and Cancer

By Jeannine Walston

What causes stress?

Sources of stress include physical, nutritional, psychological, and environmental triggers.

  • Inactivity
  • Extreme exercise
  • Overwork and schedule disruption
  • Sleep irregularity, disruption, and disturbance
  • Genes
  • Extreme changes in the physical environment
  • Overeating
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Timing of snacks and drinks
  • Low-carb, high-fat diet
  • Low-carb, high-protein diet
  • High ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s
  • Behavioral and physiological patterns of reactivity
  • Extreme changes in life circumstances
  • Mental and emotional frustrations
  • Trauma
  • Exposure to chemicals
  • Other environmental toxic exposures

What are some of the physical effects of stress in people?

  • Reduces healthy functioning of the nervous system, immune system, hormones, and other components of the body
  • Increases inflammation and inflammatory cytokines
  • Increases depression and anxiety
  • Damages the function and shrinks the size of the hippocampus causing memory loss and mood disorders
  • Increases abdominal fat and insulin resistance
  • Interferes with thyroid function
  • Activates pathways that lead to death of the mitochondria and loss of energy production
  • Increases the release of fats in the bloodstream
  • Raises triglycerides, lowers good cholesterol, and raises bad cholesterol
  • Causes arteries to constrict, high blood pressure, and blood clotting1-6

What is the relationship between stress and cancer?

In Life Over Cancer, Keith Block, MD explains the strong relationship between biochemistry, the stress response in the body, and cancer.

“The body responds to stress—chemical, physical, nutritional, or psychological—by secreting stress hormones… Chronically elevated stress hormones produce a terrain that is worrisomely hospitable to cancer cells. With your stress machinery stuck on high, continued exposure to stress hormones can severely damage your body and disturb your vital reserves of nutrients, enzymes, hormones, antibodies, and immune cells, all of which are essential to your recovery. For instance, chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone adrenaline increase levels of blood glucose and clotting factors, which…are conducive to the growth and spread of cancer. And a blood clot colliding with the lungs or brain can be fatal. Chronically high levels of another stress hormone, cortisol, make it difficult for insulin to ferry blood glucose into your tissues; this is tantamount to the insulin resistance, which… can stimulate cancer growth. Cortisol also suppresses some immune system activity and can increase biochemicals that support the growth and spread of tumors. In general, high levels of cortisol and adrenaline contribute to faster disease progression, quicker relapse, poorer natural killer cell function, and decreased survival.”

Many studies have linked psychological distress such as ongoing depression and anxiety related symptoms with a higher risk of cancer incidence and poorer cancer survival7. Self-care to reduce stress supports your optimal health and healing.

Does eliminating or reducing the causes of stress always remove physical imbalances that developed due to stress?

Sometimes stress chemistry and biorhythms cannot be completely corrected through improvements in diet, exercise, sleep, mind-body balance, spiritual engagement, and the environment. Strategies to reduce and/or eliminate stress may or may not remove the biochemical residue that can remain in the body. Other interventions may be needed and can be identified through medical testing on biorhythms and stress hormone imbalances. For more information, see the Stress Chemistry chapter in Life Over Cancer by Keith Block, MD.

What is the relationship between stress and the nervous system?

The autonomic nervous system helps process the experience of stress.

The autonomic nervous system regulates 90 percent of the body’s functions and contains two branches.

Sympathetic Nervous System

  • Prepares the body to react to situations of stress or emergency
  • Decreases the tone and contractility of smooth muscle
  • Increases heart rate

Parasympathic Nervous System

  • Slows down the heart rate
  • Supports digestion and breathing
  • Relaxes adrenal over stimulation
  • Designs repair, maintenance, and restoration

Healthy strategies help to reduce stress and balance the nervous system.

What else is important to understand about stress?

Different stimuli can be stressful to different people. Something that is stressful to one person may not be stressful to someone else, and vice versa.

Part of the experience of stress resides in the interpretation. Some people have defined stress as the sense of having little or no control.

Although some life variables cannot be controlled, they can be influenced. This brings a sense of empowerment. Studies suggest that diminishing the perception of stress results in dramatic stress reduction and health improvements.

What are some first personal steps toward stress reduction?

Start by answering the following questions for yourself.

  • What brings you calm?
  • What activities bring you joy?
  • What nurtures you?
  • What do you really, really, really want to do?

Spend more time doing what brings you calm, joy, and nurturing. Engage in activities that are compatible with your true nature.

What depletes your energy? If something drains you, stay away from it.

Stress can also be a response to any demand for change.

Stress may have created by how people respond to life.

What are other key wellness strategies to reduce stress through integrative cancer care?

Food is medicine when you know what to eat and what not to eat. Healthy food choices support wellness. Unhealthy food choices create havoc in the entire body.

Restful and deep sleep helps to restore balance, including the circadian rhythms. Healthy adults need between 7 and 8 hours of quality sleep nightly. More sleep may be necessary during stressful times, and especially when the body is healing.

Breathing Techniques
Balanced, deep, rhythmic inhales and exhales help regulate all of the functions in your body. Focusing on breathing moves people into a more relaxed state. When people get into the habit of it, the breath becomes an anchor. Deep breathing is especially helpful during stress. Remember to breathe.

Relaxation Techniques

Noise can be stressful. Even constant activity is a type of noise. Many people move from one activity to the next without pausing to connect with themselves and life. Quiet time with soothing music, silence, a cup of tea, bath, reading a book, exercising, and engaging what you love invites balance through relaxation.

The process of ending accumulation of and actively eliminating toxins in the body through detoxification reduces stress.

Exercise and Movement
Daily exercise and movement practices reduce stress and provide many other health benefits to body, mind, and spirit.

Creating Healthier Beliefs
Habits of mind are powerful constructs. Our beliefs are the blueprint of who we are. Beliefs unconsciously drive our decisions, attitudes, feelings, coping patterns, life choices, and more. Evaluating your belief system is a tool toward healthier living, better clarity, and reduced stress. Clear beliefs help people make decisions about cancer treatments based on wisdom instead of fear.

Zest, joy, coping styles, and emotional expression relate to stress levels.

Mental images can either support or reduce stress. Imagery is one of the most powerful ways our mind communicates with the body.

Meditation Techniques
is a combination of relaxation and self-awareness bringing people calm and relief during times of stress. Devote time to sit quietly and be with yourself. Breathe deeply and relax your body. Feel roots from the ground helping to support you.

Soft Belly Breathing Technique
The soft belly meditation calms the vagus nerve, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to control the relaxation response.

Spiritual reflection and connection can help reduce stress.

Reducing Toxic Exposures
Toxic exposures from the environment cause stress to the physical body and whole person. Learn more about the relationship between health and the environment.  

Essential Oils

Use essential oils such as lavender through aromatherapy to bring calm and relaxation.

Either through self-application or a provider, reiki reduces stress and provides other important benefits.

What is the potential relationship between stress and life experiences?

The Holmes and Rahe stress scale was developed based on the premise that some life events increase stress levels and may increase susceptibility to illness and mental health challenges. Life events are correlated with life change units. Each event should be considered if it has taken place in the last 12 months. If you wish to obtain a total score, add values to the right of each item.

Life Event  

Life Change Units  

Death of a spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Imprisonment 63
Death of a close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 53
Marriage 50
Dismissal from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in health of family member 44
Pregnancy 40
Sexual difficulties 39
Gain a new family member 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial state 38
Change in frequency of arguments 35
Major mortgage 32
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 30
Change in responsibilities at work 29
Child leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Spouse starts or stops work 26
Begin or end school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in working hours or conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in recreation 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 18
Minor mortgage or loan 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family reunions 15
Change in eating habits 15
Vacation 13
Christmas 12
Minor violation of law 11


 Potential susceptibility to illness and mental health problems goes as follows.

Above 300—Major risk of illness
200-299—Moderate risk
150-200—Mild risk
149—Low risk

What are some other strategies to reduce stress?

Learn ways to get very important help reducing and even eliminating stress from a Cancer Coach.

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