Can stress cause cancer? While there may not be a direct cause and effect correlation, research suggests that stress does in fact wreak havoc on our health. Dr. Rena Szabo, Health Psychologist at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, says stress has been implicated in a wide range of health conditions, including cancer.
“There is clear and compelling evidence that stress can adversely impact immune function,” Szabo noted. “Impaired immune function has been implicated in carcinogenesis – the development of cancer.”
In addition to compromising one’s immune system and affecting sleep quality, stress often leads to other unhealthy lifestyle choices. Individuals struggling with stress may find themselves turning to high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods, turning away from exercise and physical activity, or even adopting harmful habits like tobacco use and excessive alcohol consumption.
So how does one avoid the everyday stresses of life, love and labor?
According to Szabo, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy to combat stress, and managing stress is sometimes easier said than done.
“Humans are very complex, both physiologically and psychologically,” she said. “Trying to target any one thing as a means of minimizing stress is incredibly difficult and, truthfully, not practical. You need to figure out what stress looks like for you and then find ways to manage it within the context of your life.”
Focus on the basics
To start, Szabo suggests focusing on the basics like getting adequate rest, proper nutrition and exercise. From there, try introducing techniques like deep breathing exercises and meditation to help you relax. However, Szabo says it is important to make incremental changes, identify an array of relaxation methods that work for you and, above all, be flexible.
“There are no quick fixes and routines sometimes get interrupted,” she said. “Have multiple tools in your stress management toolbox. There will always be times and situations when life just happens and you can’t engage in the stress-reduction activities you normally would. Have a backup plan.”
Another key to managing stress is finding that often elusive work-life balance.
“There’s so much hype about multitasking, but research shows it causes stress,” she explained. “Rather than fragment your time, attention and energy, try focusing on one task at a time and be present in the moment. That alone can help reduce stress.”
For individuals undergoing cancer treatment or in remission, stress management is incredibly important.
“New research suggests that stress can contribute to the metastatic, aggressive nature of cancer,” she stated. “Managing stress can help lower your risk of disease progression.”