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For many of us, it’s something of an adrenaline rush to stay as busy as possible. We’ll be the first to admit that maximizing efficiency as part of our already hectic daily routine is highly satisfying – especially when I’m able to accomplish so much more in a day than we ever thought possible. But there comes a point when loading up our schedules with too many obligations becomes detrimental to our health and we need to pause and take a serious look at the stressors in our lives.
Stress is a major killer in our world today. It is so damaging to our bodies, in fact, that it ranks right up there with poor diet and exposure to toxic substances in terms of how it influences the formation and progression of serious health conditions like cancer.
We would even argue that stress is perhaps more problematic in terms of cancer risk than some of the other usual suspects. This is because it’s something that many people carry around with them all the time without giving it a second thought. In the 21st century, in other words, stress has pretty much become second nature. It’s now a “normal” part of everyday life for busy people, despite the fact that it’s silently taking a major toll on public health.
Mainstream Denial of Stress-Cancer Link Is Harming Millions
What makes the situation worse is that mainstream medicine routinely ignores the scientific link between stress and cancer. Many conventional doctors and oncologists even vehemently deny that stress plays any role whatsoever in causing cancer, claiming inadequate science as proof.
The group Cancer Research UK, for instance, claims that the majority of scientific studies definitively show that stress “does not increase the risk of cancer.” While the group does admit that some “individual studies” have identified a link between stress and breast cancer specifically, the “overall” evidence for this “has been poor,” this prominent organization insists.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is similarly positioned, suggesting that scientific evidence linking stress to cancer is “weak.” While prolonged psychological stress can, indeed, lead to health problems, both mental and physical, the NCI insists that it’s really the auxiliary behaviors that often accompany chronic stress – “binge” eating, smoking, and alcohol consumption being three common examples – that represent the real triggers of stress-associated disease.
We want to make it clear that we normally wouldn’t point to resources like this because, as you probably already know, many prominent cancer organizations have ulterior motives beyond simply trying to stamp out cancer (if that’s even what they’re about at all). But it’s important for you to see the contrast between what these groups are saying about science versus what science actually says.
Stress as a Permanent Fixture Is Far More Damaging Than Fleeting Moments of Stress
Case in point is the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center at The University of Texas, which holds a much more progressive position on the matter. Experts from MD Anderson admit that there are many scientific links between stress and cancer. They note that prolonged, or what’s commonly referred to as “chronic,” stress is one of modern society’s most insidious killers.
As opposed to occasional (acute) stress, chronic stress has “a profound impact” on how the systems of the body function, to quote the words of Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, PhD, a professor of General Oncology and Behavioral Science and director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson. He describes a perpetually stressed body as being “more hospitable to cancer” than a non-stressed body and suggests that people should do everything they can to eliminate, or at least reduce, their overall stress load.
Keep in mind that stressful situations can be relatively harmless as long as they pass. Things like nervousness before an important speech or temporary moments of frustration during heavy traffic probably aren’t going to kill you, in other words. But constantly worrying about the affairs of life just might because it has no end. It basically drains the body of its critical life-force, weakening the immune system and opening it up to progressive failure.
“Caring for a sick loved one or dealing with a long stint of unemployment are common causes of chronic stress,” Dr. Cohen says. He notes that digestive problems and depression are among the earliest symptoms of developing health problems associated with stress. “Chronic stress also can help cancer grow and spread in a number of ways.”
How Stress Takes Over Your Body and Drains Your Health
The reason for this is that whenever you encounter a stressful situation in life, your body basically has to kick everything into overdrive. The hypothalamus region of your brain sounds a system-wide alarm, activating various nerve and hormone signals throughout the body. One of these signals tells your adrenal glands to begin producing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, the job of which is to help your body engage and basically neutralize the incoming stress threat.
As this is all happening, your heart rate and blood pressure both increase rapidly, supplying your body with more energy to put up a fight in an attempt to restore proper balance. The presence of cortisol in particular triggers an increase of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. This enhances brain function and aids in supporting other substances whose job it is to repair any tissue that gets damaged during the stress event.
It’s a body-wide call to arms, if you will, that requires all hands on deck. Many of the vital resources that would otherwise be used to support the normal functionality of your body are diverted to combat whatever stressful situation you might be facing. This puts your immune, digestive, reproductive, and growth systems in a temporary hold state. One of the main purposes of stress hormones, in fact, is to temporarily mute these other bodily functions that are either non-essential or even harmful were they to occur during a stressful event.
Again, it’s a natural sequence of events that’s completely normal and healthy – so long as it only lasts for a short while. Under normal circumstances, your body is able to eliminate the stressor in question and quickly recover, allowing it to once again achieve an optimal state of homeostasis for fully restored function. It’s really only when these short-term “fight or flight” responses to stress don’t subside in a timely manner that problems can arise.
Early Symptoms of Chronic Stress That Could Eventually Lead to Cancer
The stress-response system that I’ve just described isn’t designed to remain activated for prolonged periods of time, in other words. In the event that it gets stuck in the “on” position due to chronic stress, the body essentially becomes saturated in cortisol and other stress hormones that cause damage when they stick around for too long. Some of the symptoms of this include feelings of anxiety and depression, digestive problems, headaches, difficulty sleeping, weight gain, problems concentrating, and impaired memory.
Another major early warning sign that you might have too much stress in your life is constant fatigue, seemingly without cause. If your mind routinely wanders to the negative, leaving you unable to focus on the task at hand, this could be another indication of too much stress. Stressed out people are also known to be highly impulsive, especially when it involves engaging in unhealthy habits. If you find yourself feeling irritable or anxious as you seek out “comfort” food as a quick fix, you’re probably dealing with unhealthy stress levels.
Keep in mind that, as bad as these things can be, they’re among the milder symptoms that develop early on as a direct consequence of chronic stress. As time goes on, they can worsen into more serious health problems like heart disease and cancer that are much more difficult to reverse. This is why it’s critical to nip stress in the bud early so as to avoid the catastrophic outcomes associated with its prolonged presence.
When we interviewed cancer survivor Pamela Kelsey as part of The Truth About Cancer: A Global Quest, she explained to me how she’s convinced that stress was a major contributing factor to her developing liver cancer. It was the difficulties she had dealing with stress that first brought her into her doctor’s office for a physical, where she would quickly learn that the problem was much more severe than she expected. Pamela actually had a total of 22 focal lesions on her liver that had to be dealt with.
Regular TTAC contributor Dr. Véronique Desaulniers (Dr. V.) from Breast Cancer Conqueror is another amazing cancer survivor. Dr. V. shared in our docu-series that she believes her own failure to properly manage stress in her life directly contributed to her breast cancer diagnosis. However, coming to this realization took a whole lot of contemplative thinking and deep soul-searching after the fact.
The good news is that both of these women are cancer survivors, despite having been woefully unaware of the fact that stress was causing so much damage in their lives at the time. But not everyone is as lucky as they are. This is why we truly hope you’ll take inventory of your own life and identify factors that might be causing stress in order to eliminate them before they have the chance to cause serious harm.
Stress Can Alter Your Genetics, Causing Cancer Cells to Spread and Form Tumors
Learning how to get a grip on stress in its earliest stages is thus critical to minimizing your risk of disease. I’ll get more into some tips on how to do that shortly. But before we do, let’s take a closer look at some of the science that supports this working hypothesis, including one particular study we found that identifies a master “stress gene” that plays a major role in cancer metastasis.
Our bodies contain a gene known as ATF3 that activates whenever our cells are presented with any type of stressor that threatens their homeostatic balance. Should a given stressor be too strong that it threatens to permanently damage an otherwise healthy cell, ATF3 is programmed to send out a signal telling that cell to self-destruct. This is a completely normal process that occurs throughout the day, every day, inside our bodies.
But the process isn’t foolproof, especially when too much stress and pre-existing cancer cells are involved. When stress becomes too much for the body to bear, roving cancer cells that would otherwise never get the chance to form into tumors gain the upper hand. Research shows that cancer cells can actually reprogram the way that ATF3 operates entirely, causing this gene to help malignant cells instead of healthy cells. This in turn can cause cancer cells to spread and grow and tumors to form.
Keep in mind that our bodies already have more circulating cancer cells inside of them than many people think. Under normal circumstances this isn’t a big deal since the immune system is usually able to get rid of them before they have a chance to develop into masses, form their own blood supplies, and basically take over. But stress directly interferes with this process, causing it to go awry.
“If your body does not help cancer cells, they cannot spread far,” says senior study author Tsonwin Hai, a professor of molecular and cellular biochemistry at Ohio State University, about this phenomenon. “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.”
What we find particularly fascinating about all this is that it just goes to show how damaging stress can be in terms of cancer progression and spread. The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that cancer metastasis is by and large the most significant challenge when it comes to gaining control over a diagnosis. Based on what we now know about the ATF3 gene suggests that stress is a much bigger deal in this regard than one might expect.
Another study published several years earlier arrived at similar findings. While emphasizing that there exists limited evidence to suggest an association between stress and the initiation of cancers, researchers from both Iowa and Texas were unable to deny that more than 30 years’ worth of epidemiological and clinical studies provide very strong evidence that chronic stress, as well as depression and social isolation, are indeed major factors in cancer progression and spread.
Studies Suggest Stress Can Also Cause Cancer
At the same time, there are a number of studies that point to stress as a cause of cancer as well. One of these was conducted by the Japan Public Health Center as part of a large prospective inquiry into possible links between perceived stress levels and cancer risk. Based on an evaluation of more than 101,000 people, researchers observed a slightly elevated risk of cancer among individuals with high perceived stress levels compared to those with low perceived stress levels.
Another study out of South Korea that was published in the Journal of Analytical Science and Technology points to stress as a direct cause of cancer initiation, growth, and metastasis. The study directly links stress to depression, explaining how its activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the sympathetic nervous system, and the neuroendocrine system at large puts immense strain on the body-whole, inhibiting the immune system and paving the way for cancer cells to flourish.
Research out of Sweden identified similar links between excess stress and cancer. A nationwide cohort study of Swedish military men found that those with the lowest stress resilience had the highest cancer risk, and vice versa. This same study emphasized the importance of altering behavioral choices and social patterns as an adolescent, or as early as possible, so as to minimize cancer risk into adulthood.
From an immune perspective, stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline have further been shown to directly weaken the body’s natural anti-tumor defense systems. Researchers once again from MD Anderson published a study in The Journal of Clinical Investigation showing how chronic stress inhibits a special type of programmed cell death known as anoikis that basically destroys any cancer cells that try to break off from the “mother” tumor and spread elsewhere in the body.
Chronic stress engages a protein known as focal adhesion kinase, or FAK, that protects malignant cells from this normal anoikis process, effectively allowing them to metastasize and proliferate. When stress hormones are kept in check, however, anoikis functions as it should, and cancer cells are prevented from going rogue.
Oxidative Stress: Another Type of Cancer-Causing “Anxiety” Caused by Psychological Stress
Another thing that caught our attention was a study we came across that identified a link between what the study authors referred to as severe life stress (which is basically just a fancier way of saying chronic stress) and oxidative stress. Oxidative stress, as you may already know, is a type of cellular stress that occurs inside the body. Typically, oxidative stress results from too much exposure to “bad” things and not enough intake of “good” things.
Environmental toxins, food pesticides, pharmaceutical drugs, refined sugar, and lack of sleep are among the negative influencing factors most often associated with oxidative stress. You’ve probably heard the recommendations about intaking more antioxidants to help combat the resulting free radical damage. But have you ever heard psychological stress talked about in conjunction with oxidative stress?
We sure didn’t, at least until stumbling across the study in question. Oxidative stress, it turns out, is one of the ways that our bodies attempt to cope with an onslaught of psychological stress. Along with the activation of the central nervous and immune systems, free radicals form inside the body in response to chronic stress, just as they do when your skin is exposed to too much ultraviolet (UV) radiation, for instance, or when you eat too much junk food.
Too much oxidative stress, however (just like too much stress) is highly detrimental. If left to its own devices, unbridled oxidative stress can eventually lead to the formation and spread of cancer. Recognizing that psychological stress drives oxidative stress, based on the findings of this study, it becomes undeniably clear that stress can cause cancer.
6 Powerfully Effective Ways to De-Stress for Sustained Health
To sum it all up, stress, as it was first defined by endocrinologist Hans Selye back in 1936, basically encompasses an insufficient response by the body to the various mental, emotional, and/or physical challenges of life, regardless of whether they’re real or imagined. It can take many forms and may even go unnoticed, especially when it persists in a state of constancy.
The best way to “fix” stress apart from eliminating it altogether is to support your body’s natural response to it. This can include everything from actively combating negative thoughts to simply taking a deep breath whenever things start to feel like they’re spiraling out of control. In one of the studies mentioned earlier, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) was investigated as a natural remedy for stress.
1 | Better Sleep
It’s all about supporting the body’s general adaptation to stress, a built-in mechanism that, as we’ve already covered, sometimes needs a little extra boost to stay in tip-top shape. Getting plenty of sleep is the first place to start, as this is when your body recharges your adrenal glands and immune system. Burning the candle at both ends is a surefire way to invite disease into your life, as well as increasingly more stress.
2 | Identify Stressors
Another important element of stress management involves actively identifying stressors in your life in order to remove them, if at all possible. This might look like taking a careful mental inventory of your daily routine and discerning anything that stands out as a point of contention or an unresolved issue. Our advice would be to focus on avoiding, or at least addressing, things that upset or otherwise distract you from “going with the flow.”
3 | Conscious Respiration
Deep or rhythmic breathing is another way to help “massage” your sympathetic nervous system and thus keep it relaxed. You’ve probably noticed during times of immense stress that your heart begins to pound and you start breathing more rapidly. These are normal bodily responses that you’ll want to make sure only last for a short time. Too much “adrenaline rush” can lead to internal conditions that are favorable to the growth and spread of cancer cells.
4 | Essential Oils
Calming essential oils like lavender and citrus can also be helpful in stress management. We keep a diffuser running in our office at all times for this purpose, as I’ve noticed that our favorite essences help me to stay balanced and in control of our emotions and behavior. They also help me to work when we need to work, and rest when we need to rest, supporting a healthy work-life equilibrium. Research out of Germany actually found that essential oils work just as well as, or even better than, chemical drugs like valium at relieving anxiety, soothing the senses, and promoting healthy rest.
5 | Self Care
Finding things you like to do and incorporating them into your daily life is duly critical. Fun hobbies or even just some simple R&R can go a long way in helping to replenish the life-force that stress depletes from your body. Such activities can include things like spending quality time with your family and friends, or even volunteering your time towards a worthwhile cause as an act of charity. Basically, it’s whatever you enjoy that makes you feel good.
6 | Counseling
When all else fails, there’s also the treatment route. Professional counseling can go a long way in helping you to catalog your life and pinpoint the things that are making it more stressful. Qualified psychologists are well-versed in helping stressed-out people to improve their overall quality of life by encouraging them to talk things out, identify any lingering problems, and work on ways to address or eliminate daily stressors.
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