Stress and Cancer

I don’t know about you, but most of the time when I get stressed out, one of my first thoughts is, “Oh no- snap out of it or you’re going to get sick!” Throughout my life, I’ve always heard of the negative impacts of stress on health. During exam season, I get particularly paranoid about keeping up a healthy diet and physical regimen that will combat stress, in hopes of not getting sick. Although my efforts are often to no avail (it turns out that if you’re stressed out about not getting stressed, then you’re still stressed), the connection between stress and sickness stays solid in my mind.

As it turns out, research supports that stress can increase risk of the common cold (Cohen et al., 2012; Sapolsky, 2004). Cohen and colleagues (2012) examined the role of chronic stress in glucocorticoid resistance, and in turn, the immune response that can lead to illness. In this study, participants were quarantined after exposure to rhinoviruses and taking measures of their stress level. Those who had high levels of stress or chronic stress were found to be more vulnerable to the virus. What does this research teach us? Well, for starters, we really need to consider how to combat stress- not just because it feels good to release tension, but also because stress can lead to a lack of response and functioning in our immune response. Second, don’t sign up to be a participant in a study that makes you sick!

Although researchers examining the impact of stress on the common cold have found an association, it makes you wonder whether more stress over a longer period of time leads to a worse diagnosis. In particular, can stress get so intense and chronic that it actually leads to cancer? Shoemaker and colleagues (2016) ran a prospective study that followed the lives of 106,000 women occasionally checking in about medical and psychological information every 2.5-3 years. Women were also asked about stressors in the previous 5 years to the study. The researchers found, somewhat surprisingly, that there was no link between stress and breast cancer diagnosis. Sapolsky (2004) also discusses a bit about the role of stress in cancer, and concludes that there is no link. His reasons follow from analysis of studies that have included retrospective studies. Sapolsky makes the case that when asked about whether you experienced stress prior to a diagnosis, but already know that you have cancer, it is likely this can be an outlet for an explanation for why cancer occurred to the patient. However, as we can see in a prospective study, there is no link.

Sapolsky (2004) continues discussing previous studies that indicate group therapy is an effective intervention leading to greater longevity for cancer patients. However, he boils these findings down to individuals likely having better compliance with treatment as a result of discussions in group therapy. As an individual trained in clinical psychology, I can imagine that some of Sapolsky’s claim may be true, but as he does not have substantial evidence to support his claim, I think there may be a larger component to this finding of an effective therapeutic intervention. Across findings, those who are widowed or who have lost a very close loved one are at greater risk for diagnosis. Although it is unclear whether the group therapy intervention targeted individuals who lost loved ones directly, it is certainly possible that group therapy was serving another purpose of connection, and perhaps even lifting individuals out of depression. It seems as though this is an open opportunity for further research.

Cohen, Janicki-Deverts, Doyle, Miller, Frank, Rabin, & Turner. (2012). Chronic stress, glucocorticoid receptor resistance, inflammation, and disease risk. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(16), 5995.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: A guide to stress, stress related diseases, and coping. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Schoemaker, M., Jones, M., Wright, L., Griffin, J., Mcfadden, E., Ashworth, A., & Swerdlow, A. (2016). Psychological stress, adverse life events and breast cancer incidence: A cohort investigation in 106,000 women in the United Kingdom. Breast Cancer Research : BCR, 18(1), 72.

3 thoughts on “Stress and Cancer

  1. Interesting post, Keri! I’m wondering as an individual trained in clinical psych what you thought of Sapolsky’s reasoning for why the original study showing therapy improving health outcomes could not be replicated? Basically that there are more social outlets and support for cancer patients now than there used to be so therapy no longer offers the same unique benefit that it used to. Also, I like your comment about being stressed about trying not to be stressed–I definitely see this as a broader problem with people wanting to engage in healthy behaviors (such as eating well or exercising) but perhaps falling victim to the negative effects of stress as a result of their worries.

  2. Keri, your post made me start contemplating the idea that maybe I want there to be an association between stress and cancer diagnosis, if only because then that signals some degree of controllability (i.e., “If I manage stress well, I’ll have less risk of getting breast cancer”). I guess the down side there is thinking that it’s your fault cancer gets the best of you.

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