Something that all breast cancer patients wonder is what caused our cancer, particularly those of us that were relatively young at diagnosis and have no genetic link. Of course, we want to avoid it happening again. One of the big questions I see asked time and again, is whether or not stress can cause breast cancer. Does stress have a profound enough effect on us physically that it can manifest as cancer? And if so, what can we do about it?
Unfortunately, stress is a part of daily life. It is defined as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation, and helps us to address problems and threats in our lives. Everyone experiences stress to a certain degree.
Can stress cause breast cancer?
A little bit of stress is actually productive, and nothing to worry about. The kind of stress we experience in our everyday lives, for example your car breaking down or having to meet a deadline, tends to be short lived and passes once the issue has been dealt with. But prolonged extreme stress, such as grief or severe financial problems, can cause a host of mental and physical problems.
The jury is still very much out on whether or not stress can directly cause breast or other cancers. There have been multiple studies done that so far show no definitive link between the 2. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that the results are difficult to apply practically. Every person reacts to and copes with stress differently. Indeed what one person feels is extremely stressful might provoke nothing more than mild concern in another. So while these results might be true for some people, it is impossible to apply them to everyone.
Further, it is widely recognised that stress can initiate indirect factors that may contribute to the formation of cancer.
How might stress contribute to cancer forming within the body?
- Chronic stress can make it more difficult to lead a healthy lifestyle. People often turn to bad habits such as smoking, drinking and eating junk food during difficult times. Stress can also lead to a lack of motivation to exercise. These factors in themselves are known risk factors for cancer.
- The body responds to stress by releasing certain hormones. These hormones stimulate the fight or flight response, which comes with physical effects such as raised blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. When experienced for extended periods of time these can be detrimental to health, and cause a weakened immune system.
How does stress affect people that already have breast cancer?
While stress as a causal factor for cancer is still being researched, multiple studies have shown a strong link between chronic stress and the progression and metastasis of cancer cells. Some studies have even shown decreased survival among people experiencing chronic stress.
“Stress has a profound impact on how your body’s systems function,” says Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor of General Oncology and Behavioral Science, and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson. Health experts are still sorting out whether stress actually causes cancer. Yet there’s little doubt that it promotes the growth and spread of some forms of the disease. Put simply, “stress makes your body more hospitable to cancer,” Cohen says.
This of course poses an enormous challenge for cancer patients. A diagnosis of and treatment for cancer is one of the most stressful events you can experience.
What can we do about it?
Whether or not stress directly causes cancer, it is clear that it is at the very least a contributing factor. It is impossible to avoid stress completely, and it would be unfair to expect someone to do so. Ironically that in itself could cause stress. It is essential though, that patients and survivors of the disease learn to manage stress in healthy ways.
How to manage stress.
I can hear the groans, but this doesn’t have to be an intense daily workout at the gym. Yoga is shown to have huge health benefits and you can do it in the comfort of your own home. Swimming is gentle on an older or weak body. For me it’s my twice a day long walks with my dog, which has the added bonus of getting me out in nature too. Exercise can be fitted into your personal life and fitness level however works for you. Just aim to move your body and raise your heart regularly.
Guard your sleep. Sleep deprivation has a big negative impact on mental well being and can make us lose perspective. If you are suffering from insomnia speak to your doctor.
By that I mean take time to rest mentally and physically. Do the things that fill you up and calm you, whatever that may be. Despite what society tells us, resting is NOT lazy. In fact it is actually very productive.
Whether that be to a trusted friend, family member or a trained professional, it is SO important to open up about the source of your stress. A problem shared really is a problem halved.
- Do a “brain dump.”
This is something I do when I am feeling particularly overwhelmed. All it involves is writing down everything that is going on in your head. That includes the big things (eg. fear of recurrence) and the small things (eg. booking the cat in for his vaccinations.) It is such a simple strategy but putting your worries down on paper, or the notes on your phone in my case, clears your head and makes it easier to manage.
- Avoid unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Things such as drinking alcohol, smoking or binge eating might temporarily make you feel better, but in the long term the sharp rise and subsequent fall of dopamine (the “feel good” hormone) that they cause will only make you feel worse. As mentioned before they are also detrimental to your physical health.
Although the evidence is shaky at the moment, I feel on a deep personal level that chronic stress contributed to me developing breast cancer. 10 months prior to my diagnosis, half way through my pregnancy with twins, we found out that one of them was very sick and would likely pass away. The rest of the pregnancy was horribly traumatic and a huge test of endurance. My son eventually died at 32 weeks gestation and I had to carry him for another 2 weeks until he and his sister were born. My daughter then spent 3 weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU.) You can read the whole story of those earth shattering 2 years of my life here.
I was 35 years old at the time and had no other risk factors for breast cancer. No family history or gene mutation, I was a healthy weight and obviously wasn’t drinking. In fact I was taking excellent care of myself because I was pregnant. But after we found out about my son, I was in a constant state of high stress levels. I couldn’t sleep properly, eat properly, or “switch off” my agonised mind.
Due to the complicated nature of my twin’s birth, I didn’t grieve properly for my son and I believe that all of the unresolved stress and trauma contributed to my cancer. Both my oncologist and one of my chemo nurses prompted me to think that, and I have since heard many stories of breast cancer patients having experienced highly stressful events in the years before their diagnosis.
Now as a survivor of triple negative breast cancer, I take stress management VERY seriously. With regards to preventing recurrence it is just as, if not more important than eating a well balanced diet and exercising. Prioritising your mental well being, especially after and during breast cancer, is something we would all be wise to do.