The Link Between Stress and Cancer

A young man sits with his head in hands in stress, while a doctor takes notes on a clipboard.

It’s no secret that mental health can affect physical health, and vice versa. People with a serious illness, such as cancer or mesothelioma, may be especially aware of this. Experts say as many as 75% of cancer survivors experience some form of mental distress. But does this stress affect cancer?

Whether or not stress can actually cause cancer is still unclear. But laboratory data suggests a link between stress hormones and tumor metastasis. This means stress may help cancer grow and spread. So healthy individuals and cancer patients alike may be interested in ways to manage stress.

Experts have suggested a variety of methods that may help people with cancer cope with stress. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, physical activity and mindfulness exercises. New research also shows drug-assisted therapy may hold promise in treating cancer-related stress and anxiety.

Body and Mind: How Does Stress Generally Affect Physical Health?

When someone experiences stress, the “fight-or-flight” response often kicks in. This response causes the body to release stress hormones that increase heart rate and blood pressure. These changes can help the body deal with danger.

Stress Hormones


Also known as adrenaline, this hormone and neurotransmitter comes from the adrenal glands. It plays a role in regulating metabolism, focus, excitement and heart rate.


This type of corticosteroid is produced in the adrenal glands. Glucocorticoids impact metabolism and the immune system. They can be anti-inflammatory or immunosuppressive.


Also known as noradrenaline, this hormone and neurotransmitter comes from the adrenal glands. It affects heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and metabolism.

These effects may be helpful in some circumstances but can become harmful over time. In fact, prolonged stress can do more harm than good. Lab studies have found links between chronic stress hormones and tumor growth, including:

  • Glucocorticoids may increase tumor metastasis (spreading to new areas).
  • Glucocorticoids may make tumor cells more resistant to chemotherapy.
  • Norepinephrine can stimulate blood vessel and tumor growth.
  • Norepinephrine may help shield tumors from the immune system.

Chronic stress can cause other negative changes in the body. These include high blood pressure, heart disease and insomnia. Stress can also weaken the immune system and cause digestion problems. It may also make a person more susceptible to other illnesses, such as COVID-19.

Cause and Effect: Can Stress Cause Cancer?

There is evidence of the effects stress can have on cancer, but researchers still do not know if stress can cause cancer. A variety of studies have been conducted around the world. Scientists have looked at many types of cancer in patients of different genders, ages and stages of cancer.

Results continue to be inconclusive. Some data support the idea that stress can cause cancer,
but some do not.

One study of more than 100,000 women found no link between stress and breast cancer development. Another analysis of 142 studies from around the world came to a different conclusion. It found an association between work-related stress and cancer risk.

Whether or not stress is a cause of cancer, it’s still vital for cancer patients and healthy people alike to take care of their mental health. Stress can cause a litany of other health problems and exacerbate existing ones. Managing stress is important for overall physical and mental health, whether it can directly lead to cancer or not.

De-Stress: Tips for Managing Stress and Cancer

The National Cancer Institute suggests data-driven approaches to stress. This includes a variety of treatments, activities and therapies that may help manage chronic stress.

  • Psychotherapy: Talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, can help patients navigate many forms of stress. Studies found both in-person and virtual therapy helped improve mental well-being and reduced cancer-specific anxieties. Some experts recommend that anyone who receives a cancer diagnosis get evaluated for stress and depression.
  • Physical activity: A recent study indicates exercise can help cancer survivors manage stress. Moderate physical activity – during and after treatment – reduced anxiety and depression in study patients. Movement and physical activity may even help prevent depression in childhood cancer survivors.
  • Psychedelic drugs: Recent surges in psychedelic drug research have highlighted the potential therapeutic benefits of psychoactive substances. Scientists have investigated MDMA, ketamine, marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms. Early data suggests therapy combined with certain psychedelics may help ease cancer-related stress.

Stress, depression, anxiety and other mental health challenges are serious. Cancer patients struggling with mental health should contact their care team. Their doctors may be able to refer them to a mental health expert, help them find support groups or make other care suggestions. Healthcare providers can also help weigh the benefits and risks of different stress management tools.