A little bit of stress is good for us – it makes us alert for the situations that require our attention. But being stressed all the time is worse for you than you think.
Everyday stress is a trigger for tumour growth. Or, is this just another controversial cancer claim?
What is stress?
In medical terms, stress is a response to any physical, mental or emotional stimuli. Emotional stress will be focused on here.
The way the body responds to stress is by releasing chemicals that cause an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. Not all stress is bad. Biologically, it prepares our body for the fight-or-flight response, and then it should return back to a natural state. We experience this just before a presentation, interview or while riding a roller-coaster. It lasts for a short period and is called short-term or acute stress.
But long-term or chronic stress can take a toll on your health as it seems to last many weeks or months. For example, situations like losing a loved one, losing a job or having an increase in financial obligations. Throbbing headaches, chest-pains and trouble sleeping are just some of the unpleasant side-effects of stress.
How chronic stress affects cancer risk?
Think about how many times in your life you have had a cold (like every winter season) or an infection (those nasty cold sores) shortly after periods of intense stress.
“Stress has a profound impact on how your body’s systems functions” says Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D, professor and director at MD Anderson.
Research shows that stress can stimulate cancer indirectly by weakening the immune system, making it more prone to bacterial or viral infections, and hospitable to cancer. And that, they release a cell-specific growth factor called VEGF to encourage blood vessel branching to feed the growing cancer cells. Stress can even stop a process called anoikis, which normally kills damaged cells to stop them from spreading.
A study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, found stress hormones such as adrenaline directly maintain tumour development and spread.
Another study published in the same journal, found a link between stress and cancer is due to a gene called ATF3. What they found is that ATF3 helps the cancer to metastasise. Tsonwin Hai, professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at The Ohio State University said “If your body does not help cancer cells, they cannot spread as far. So really, the rest of the cells in the body help cancer cells to move, to set up shop at distant sites. And one of the unifying themes here is stress.”
Even though it has been proposed that stress can promote cancer, specifically breast cancer. The data collected from this has been very poor. The studies that have found such a link, consist of a small number of samples, where women are simply being questioned if they were feeling stressed before their cancer developed. However, stress is not something that is easy to measure.
The findings from a few studies are not enough to confirm the association between stress and cancer. So, a meta-analysis was carried out, these are results that were combined from many different studies. Data collected from a sample of 100,000 individuals show stress does not directly increase the risk of cancer.
Now we know stress doesn’t affect our cancer risk, it doesn’t mean you ignore it or do nothing about it.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 85% of diseases have an emotional element to it. Scientific data shows that our health status is greatly affected by our mental and emotional reactions to events that occur in our lifetime. This only confirms that stress is a major factor for many diseases.
Can stress influence our behaviour in making healthy choices?
Feeling stressed can sometimes urge us to make unhealthy choices to compensate for it. Examples of these are overeating, smoking or drinking. And so, it is these activities that if continued, lead to cancer. So really, stress indirectly raises your risk of cancer.
Ways to reduce your stress levels
Even though we know stress has some impact on our health, stressing about being stress will not help. Stress can’t be eliminated from our lives. That would be entirely impossible. In fact, stress can be healthy in some situations.
However, there are many ways that can help us manage stress which cost almost nothing. For example, exercise, meditation and yoga has increased in popularity. Stress management programmes, counselling or therapy offered by the NHS aim to relieve stress. Acupuncture is also a new growing trend.
We know we should get at least 8 hours sleep each night, but never really follow it. But the statistics do show that getting those 8 hours is fundamental for our immune system to function. Otherwise, our natural defense response will be compromised and foreign cells such as cancer cells will not be recognised or eliminated.
If the stress is unbearable, you can be prescribed medication for it. Although, this should be your very last option.
The important thing is to give yourself some time every day, whether its 20 minutes or more, to sit somewhere quiet and not worry about anything. Treat yourself to some pampering, you deserve a break from your busy life. You will feel better and think more clearly.
You have a lot more control than you might think. It’s about realising that you’re in control of your thoughts, and well – your life.
“Never underestimate the power of the human mind to believe what it wants to believe, no matter the conflicting evidence.”
And, learning to cope with stress may not reduce your risk of cancer but it can definitely have other health benefits. It’s about making sure this is addressed sooner than later for the sake of your future health.
Now close your eyes and imagine yourself in a relaxing environment. Take a deep breath and take in the fresh oxygen from the air and exhale the carbon dioxide. Keep doing this until… well till you feel calm.