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Cancer and Chronic Stress: Understanding and Addressing the Connection

Today I’m going to discuss some mechanisms by which chronic stress promotes cancer cell growth and outline some key actions you should take to lessen your stress load.

Let’s start with a quote by Tsonwin Hai, Ph.D, a professor of Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry at Ohio State University.

“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.”

This really gets at the essence of what this post is about - understanding this stress connection and utilizing methods to take advantage of it.

What Exactly is Stress?

To put it simply, stress is your body’s response to physical, mental, and/or emotional pressure. It causes chemical changes in your body that can raise your blood pressure, heart rate, and/or blood sugar levels.

It’s important that you know in which of the three stress categories you find yourself - acute, episodic acute, or chronic stress - as more stress hormones typically equate to more inflammation which typically results in more immune suppression as well as several other biochemical reactions which can impact cancer progression negatively.

In Which Stress Category Do You Fall?

Acute Stress

Acute stress you suffer for a short period of time that doesn’t impact tumor progression (i.e. a traffic jam, an argument, criticism at work). In a passing stress situation, the sympathetic nervous system triggers a fight or flight response including the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline which communicate with target organs in your body such as your heart. Because it’s short term, acute stress doesn’t have enough time to do the extensive damage that is associated with long-term stress.

Episodic Acute Stress

Episodic acute stress is acute stress that is repeated with greater frequency. People in this category have a lot of “nervous” energy and/or worry a lot”. They “take on” too much or can’t avoid “taking on” too much because of their life circumstances. Individuals in this category often see nothing wrong with the way they conduct their lives as their stress is so habitual. This category is of more concern for those with a cancer diagnosis because of the frequency that their body is triggering stress hormones.

Chronic Stress

People in this category often don’t see a way out of their difficult situation. This is the stress of unrelenting demands and pressures for what seems like interminable periods of time. Chronic stress wreaks the most biochemical havoc. Some chronic stress stems from early childhood and/or experiences that become internalized and remain painful and present. A view of the world, or a belief system, is created that causes limiting thoughts (e.g., the world is a threatening place, people will find out I’M a pretender, I must be perfect all the time).

People are immediately aware of acute stress because it is new; they ignore chronic stress because it is old, familiar, and almost comfortable. You may notice yourself in more than one category, but separating out different types of stress in your life is critical to addressing them.