Can Stress Cause Cancer?

person stressed at their desk

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Scientists have long struggled with finding the root cause of most forms of cancer. The development of many cancers has been linked to unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking alcohol excessively, stress, and lack of physical activity.

A link that is often overlooked is the link between stress and cancer. When you are stressed, your body goes through a series of physiological changes that are typically temporary. Once the stressor passes, it all goes back to normal.

However, being stressed for an extended period can cause lasting changes in your body, increasing your risk or even triggering the development of certain medical conditions. There is a link between your emotional and physical health. So, in certain instances, emotional health challenges can manifest physically.

This article examines the link between stress and cancer and to what extent stress needs to be considered as a factor when deciphering what causes cancer. 

Can Stress Cause Cancer?

There is little to no evidence to prove that stress can directly cause cancer to develop. However, it becomes more challenging to take care of your body and health when you're stressed. It’s also commonplace for people to develop unhealthy habits as coping mechanisms when stressed.

Practices such as smoking, binge eating, and drinking alcohol excessively are sometimes used to cope with stress. All of these habits have been linked to the development of cancer.

Stress Can Weaken Your Immune System

One theory on the connection between stress and cancer is that you are at a higher risk because of your weakened immune system. Research on the link between stress and cancer is conflicting.

Living with chronic stress for an extended period could weaken your immune system. The role of your immune system is to protect your body from diseases and infections. A weakened immune system could make you more susceptible to developing cancer.

In a 2017 study on the effect stress in the workplace has on men with prostate cancer, researchers concluded that there was a link between exposure to prolonged workplace stress and an increased risk of developing prostate cancer before the age of 65. 

Some research shows that stress may also encourage the spread of cancer in people with the condition, particularly in those with breast, ovarian or colorectal cancer. When your body is stressed, it ramps the production of hormones such as norepinephrine. These hormones are thought to stimulate the growth of cancer cells. 

Stress May Cause Cancer to Return

While it's been proven that stress cannot directly cause cancer, some research suggests that stress can cause cancer to come back even years after remission.

The studies to back up this claim have been inconclusive, and in most cases, scientists have no clue why cancer redevelops after successful treatment. There have been numerous studies on animals that prove a direct link between stress and cancer. However, there have been no conclusive studies on people.

Can Your Stress Level Be Diagnosed?

There are two forms of stress, chronic and acute stress:

  • Acute stress: This kind of stress is fleeting. You experience it when you are late for the bus or suddenly thrown into an argument.
  • Chronic stress: A form of stress that lasts for weeks or maybe even months. It’s also known as long-term stress. Symptoms of chronic stress include anxiety, nausea, difficulty concentrating, and weight changes. This form of stress can negatively impact your health. When diagnosing chronic stress, your doctor will ask about stressors in your life and how you respond to those stressors.

If You Show Signs of High Stress

There are no specific medical or diagnostic tests for diagnosing chronic stress. But, if your healthcare provider suspects that you have cancer, they’ll typically order a series of screening tests such as blood work and imaging tests, after which a biopsy might be requested to confirm whether or not you have cancer.

A biopsy involves removing a tissue sample from the area where the cancer is suspected of having originated. The tissue is then examined by a pathologist who will determine if the tissue has cancer cells in it. 

How Is Cancer Treated?

There are several types of treatment used for cancer. The most common is chemotherapy. Chemotherapy is a treatment that aims to kill the cancer cells in your body.

Certain types of cancer might also need surgery to remove growing tumors in certain body parts. 

Coping With Stress and Cancer

Finding healthy ways to cope with stress or eliminate stress from your life hasn’t been proven to prevent cancer. It does, however, ensure that your body and its immune system are always in optimal health.

You can’t always prevent stressful events from occurring, but you can develop ways to manage them. Some great tips for coping with stress include: 

  • Practicing yoga and meditation: Some research shows that yoga and meditation can help you cope with stress. You don’t have to be an expert at either to start. Following beginner-level, guided yoga and meditation videos on the internet is a great place to start. 
  • Talk to someone: Very often, the source of people’s stress is emotional and personal. In such a case, getting rid of your stressor becomes more complicated. Speaking to a psychologist can help with this. A psychologist will equip you with the tools to manage your stress. 
  • Get enough sleep: Being stressed and not getting enough sleep can be a vicious cycle. You are stressed, so you have difficulty sleeping; however, because you have difficulty sleeping, you remain stressed. Set a scheduled bedtime and put away all blue light emitting devices to encourage sound sleep. Stress takes a toll on your body and its immune system. Getting adequate sleep also gives your body time to heal itself. 


There have been numerous studies on the link between stress and cancer. However, no human studies can conclusively prove that stress is a direct cause of cancer. Stress does weaken your immune system and could cause you to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as smoking and excessive drinking.

A Word From Verywell 

Stress is a normal part of your everyday life; in many cases, it can be difficult to avoid stressful events. However, it’s essential to prevent chronic stress. Chronic stress puts your body under stress for extended periods. The overarching effects on your physical and mental health are far-reaching, and research is still ongoing to understand the role that stress plays in causing medical conditions such as cancer to develop.

Feeling stressed from time to time is typically nothing to fret about. Cancer is a challenging condition, and receiving a diagnosis can cause you to become stressed. Staying on top of your stress can help your recovery journey.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Toketemu Ohwovoriole
Toketemu has been multimedia storyteller for the last four years. Her expertise focuses primarily on mental wellness and women’s health topics.