Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, MD, FFARCSI

Cancer patients suffer from both physical and emotional stress. Today, stress is recognized as a leading factor responsible for the reduced quality of life of cancer patients. Some studies have also proven the association of extreme stress with poorer clinical outcomes. We all know that cancer causes stress, but can stress cause cancer? Read on to know more about the link between stress and cancer.

What is Stress?

Psychological stress is described as the feeling of being under physical, mental or emotional pressure. Although it is fairly common to experience some stress time and again, but experiencing high levels of psychological stress repeatedly over long durations can lead to physical or mental health problems.

Can Stress Cause Cancer?

Can Stress Cause Cancer?

Although stress can cause a plethora of physical health issues, evidence of stress as a causal factor for cancer is weak. While some studies indicate a connection between different psychological factors and greater risk of developing cancer, others do not.

Evident links between cancer and psychological stress can arise in many ways. For instance, stressed individuals may develop certain behaviours, like overeating, smoking, or drinking alcohol, which elevate their risk for developing cancer and other diseases. Also, individuals with family history of cancer face a greater risk of developing cancer due to a shared inherited risk factor, and not solely because of stress.

What Triggers Stress?

Stress can be triggered by routine events and daily responsibilities, and also by unusual events, like an illness or trauma. When people begin to feel that they are unable to control or manage changes in their daily life activities, they become stressed. Their body then responds to mental, physical or emotional pressure by releasing stress hormones, like norepinephrine and epinephrine, which speed up their heart rate, raise blood sugar levels, and increase blood pressure. These changes help stressed individuals to act with greater speed and strength to dodge a possible threat. Constant stress is the root cause of many problems. Studies have shown that ones who experience intense and chronic stress suffer from digestive fertility and urinary problems. They also have a weakened immune system. Sufferers of chronic stress are more likely to contract viral infections like flu or common cold, and also experience anxiety, depression, headaches, and sleep trouble.

How Does Stress Affect Cancer Patients?

Cancer patients can find the physical, social, and emotional effects of the illness to be stressful. Ones who try to manage their stress with risky behaviours like smoking or drinking alcohol, or become more sedentary can have a poorer quality of life post cancer treatment. Contrary to this, individuals who use effective coping strategies to counter and manage stress, tend to reduce their levels of anxiety, depression, and symptoms related to the cancer and its treatment. However, there is no evidence which proves that successful management of psychological stress improves cancer survival rate.

Although there is still no concrete evidence which proves that stress directly affects cancer outcomes, there is some data, which does suggest that patients can develop a sense of hopelessness or helplessness when stress becomes immense. This response is linked with higher mortality rates, although the mechanism behind this outcome is unclear. It is probably because people suffering from cancer start feeling hopeless or helpless and do not seek treatment, they give up prematurely or do not adhere to potentially helpful therapy, practice risky behaviours like drug use, and maintain an unhealthy lifestyle, which consequently causes premature death.

How Can Cancer Patients Learn To Cope With Stress?

Social and emotional support can help cancer patients learn to cope up with psychological stress. Such support can decrease levels of anxiety, depression and symptoms among the patients. Patients can join a cancer support group, attend cancer education sessions, and take stress management training to learn how to manage psychological stress. They can also take medications for anxiety or depression. Exercise, meditation, relaxation, counselling, and talk therapy are other useful tools for cancer patients to ease their stress.

Some experts recommend that all cancer patients should be screened for stress early in the course of treatment. A few also suggest re-screening at critical points through the course of care. Health care providers can use different kinds of screening tools, like a questionnaire or distress scale, to determine if a cancer patient requires help for managing their emotions or with other practical issues. Patients who display moderate to severe stress are generally referred to a clinical health psychologist, psychiatrist, social worker or chaplain.

Pramod Kerkar

Written, Edited or Reviewed By:

, MD,FFARCSI

Pain Assist Inc.

Last Modified On: August 23, 2018

This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer

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