Is Stress a Risk Factor for Cancer?

Chronic stress can hurt the body in many ways.

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Evidence from epidemiological studies suggests that chronic depression and/or a paucity of supportive personal relationships may be risk factors for the development and progression of some kinds of cancer. For example, one study of women with ovarian cancer suggests that stress and low social support may be related to certain growth factors in the tumor microenvironment—the place where cancer cells interact with surrounding cells. In some new studies from Eric Yang and Ron Glaser and others, melanoma, nasopharyngeal carcinoma, and multiple myeloma tumor cells have receptors for the stress hormones norepinephrine and epinephrine, and when cancer cells are exposed to these stress hormones in the laboratory, the cancer cells produce factors that favor the spread of the tumor cells; if this happens in the body, it could increase the risk for metastases.

More broadly, chronic severe stress can disrupt sleep and appetite, effectively pushing the production of stress hormones that fuel long-term or persistent inflammation—and inflammation may promote certain kinds of tumor cells to proliferate. It's important to emphasize that this doesn't mean that stress causes cancer. But stress is bad for your body in many ways, and some kinds of physiological stress responses like heightened inflammation or overproduction of some stress hormones may actually be good for certain kinds of cancers.

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