Stress as a Risk Factor for Breast Cancer and Recurrence

Stress Impacts the Immune System, Sleep, and Hormones

Does stress cause breast cancer to develop, recur, or spread? Stress happens when push comes to shove. If you experience some force, pressure or demand on your body, mind, or emotions that causes tension or distress, you will respond or react in some way. For some, stress is a powerful motivator, and for others it may cause emotional, mental, and even physical symptoms. Let's take a look at stress and see whether it may be a risk factor for breast cancer.

There are several different questions hidden within the concept of breast cancer. Does stress cause breast cancer? Does stress cause breast cancer that is already present to progress or spread? Does stress raise the risk of recurrence? Does stress lower survival? And, importantly, does reducing stress make a difference?

A lot of these questions are still unanswered, but we will look at the biology behind stress and breast cancer, and what we know at this time.

What is Stress?

What are common stressors and what is your stress response?. Photo©Milan Markovic

Life is full of opportunities for stress. Since stressors are so varied, you might like to keep in mind this short list of common life events that trigger stress responses, keeping in mind that stressful events can be both good and bad:

  • Loss of a close relative, friend, or pet
  • Loss of a spouse to death or divorce
  • Marriage
  • Divorce of one's parents
  • Job loss
  • Workplace conflicts
  • Economic crisis
  • Severe illness: your own or that of a close relative
  • Family and personal relationships

Can Stress Cause Breast Cancer?

Is stress a risk factor for breast cancer?. Photo©dolgachov

"You can't tell me I didn't have breakup cancer," said Katherine Russell Rich in her book The Red Devil. She found a breast lump right after her divorce and was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. Elizabeth Edwards was helping her husband campaign for Vice President when she found her breast lump. You may know somebody with a similar story: after a period of chronic stress or significant loss, they found a lump and were diagnosed with cancer.

It may seem natural to associate negative emotions with breast cancer, but researchers are not sure if, or why, your body may be more vulnerable to cancer due to stress. And, not everybody who has stress gets sick. Some people seem to be able to de-stress or fight back, without risking their health.

In 2008, a group of Israeli scientists studied a group of women under 45 years old. They found that young women who had endured two or more traumatic life events had a higher than average rate of depression and greater vulnerability to breast cancer. The younger a woman was when a crisis hit, the greater their risk for cancer.

Likewise, a Scandinavian study found an increased risk of breast cancer among women who perceived their lives to be more stressful.

The Scandinavian study brought to light an important point to consider when discussing stress. The presence of stress (for example, if you added up points for divorce, conflict, etc), and the perception of stress (how stressed a person feels) are separate issues. Some people feel very stressed (perceive stress) with relatively minor concerns, whereas others appear to whether major objective stressors without feeling as "stressed out."

Stress, Your Immune System, and Stress Hormones

It is thought that stress may affect your nervous, endocrine and immune systems. Chronic stress may weaken your immune system, leaving you with less resistance to disease. In the Israeli study, women who responded to stress with optimism and a fighting spirit seemed to have a protective emotional armor that raised their defenses against breast cancer.

It's important to understand that stress rarely happens in isolation, and perhaps some of the things people do when stressed play a role. For example, some people eat more or drink more, or smoke when stressed.

Can Stress Cause Breast Cancer to Recur or Spread?

Stressed Out Stock Photo. Phlebotomy Tech/Flickr/CC by 2.0

While we're not sure where we are at with cancer initiation, it appears that stress is a bad idea for people who have had breast cancer.

Researchers have looked at this from several angles, albeit mostly in cells in a dish or in rodents thus far.

From a biological standpoint it would make sense that stress could stimulate breast cancer to grow or spread. When we are stressed we release a hormone called norepinephrine, one of our "stress hormones." Norepinephrine in turn may stimulate both the formation of new blood vessels by cancers (angiogenesis) and hasten metastasis (spread of cancer). Other studies looking at something called "telomerase activity" also suggest that there could be a biological basis behind stress facilitating the recurrence or spread of cancer.

Does this translate to living creatures? For mice who were placed in a simulated stressful environment, their tumors were more likely to spread.

Studies in humans also seem to point a naughty finger at stress, though it's more difficult to separate out confounding factors. In a fairly large study, women with some types of breast cancer lived longer if they participated in mindfulness stress reduction activities.

As a final note, we know that stress can cause insomnia. We've also learned that insomnia can be dangerous for people who have had cancer, having been associated with lower survival rates for women with some types of breast cancer.

If you've had breast cancer and are feeling panicky after considering this, take heart. Yes, it does appear that stress is unhealthy for those who have had cancer. Yet but we've also learned that on the flip side of the posttraumatic stress many cancer survivors experience, there is also something called posttraumatic growth. Cancer really can change people for the better!

Stress and Cancer Survival

What about stress and survival? Have any studies looked at the impact of stress not just on causing cancer or causing it to recur or spread, but on surviving?

From a gut feeling standpoint it would seem that feeling stressed would put a damper on survival, but would do the studies say? And as a second question, can reducing the stress in your life make a difference in how long you will live with breast cancer?

This is a difficult topic to study for researchers, and to date good studies are lacking.

Stress and Living with Cancer - Find Your Balance

Mindfulness and healthy living is good for more than redcuing breast cancer risk. Photo©MariaVu

There's an old joke that the only people who have no stress are those who live in graveyards. But stress is a normal part of life to which we all respond differently, depending on our personalities, backgrounds, and situations. While stress can provide great motivation for some people, it can cause health problems such as headaches, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, dental problems, and ulcers for others.

Scientists aren't completely convinced that stress causes cancer, but it can certainly lessen your quality of life.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health 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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