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Cancer-Causing Effects of Chronic Stress

For many of us, stress is a constant companion. What begins as a normal response to life’s challenges, from our job, family, or illness, can gradually evolve into an ever-present shadow. It creeps into our daily lives, seeping into the very fabric of our well-being until we begin to accept it as the norm. Chronic stress has become even more common than before, exacerbated by factors like the pandemic, the rising cost of living, and the myriad of uncertainties in today’s world. In fact, a staggering 76% of adults reported experiencing at least one stress-related symptom in the past month—symptoms ranging from fatigue and headaches to anxiety (1).

While short-term stress is unavoidable and normal, the duration and intensity of stress are what set chronic stress apart. Short-term stress arises in response to immediate situations, like a work deadline or a sudden family issue. Once the stressor dissipates, so does the stress itself, allowing our bodies to return to a state of equilibrium. However, chronic stress is relentless; it lingers, becoming a constant burden even when there’s no apparent threat. Recognizing chronic stress is the first step toward addressing it. Chronic stress symptoms can manifest in various ways, including persistent fatigue, frequent headaches, irritability, or a growing sense of anxiety. These physical and emotional symptoms often serve as warning signals, urging us to take action to correct the imbalance in our lives.

Below are five well-documented effects of chronic stress on the body that can contribute to cancer development and progression. With this information, we provide you with several compelling reasons why you should start taking your stress levels seriously!

1. Chronic stress shortens your telomeres

Chronic stress takes a toll on the very essence of our genetic makeup, affecting a crucial component known as telomeres. Picture telomeres as the protective caps at the end of your DNA strands, akin to the plastic tips on shoelaces that prevent them from fraying. These tiny structures play a pivotal role in safeguarding your genetic information. Telomeres gradually shorten with age, but when stress becomes chronic, this shortening accelerates (2). When our genetic information is no longer safeguarded by telomeres, it can cause chronic inflammation, increase the likelihood of cancerous mutations, and shorten our lifespan.

2. Chronic stress dysregulates your hormones

When you encounter a stressful situation, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline as part of the “fight or flight” response. These hormones help you react quickly and effectively to immediate threats. However, chronic stress keeps your stress response system constantly activated, causing a continuous release of hormones that can have detrimental effects on various systems in your body. For example, prolonged elevation of stress hormones like norepinephrine and epinephrine has been shown to stimulate the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors, which in turn facilitates the growth and spread of cancerous cells (3). Chronically elevated stress hormones have been found to impact nearly every system in the body, including your heart, brain, and gut, to name a few.

3. Persistent stress contributes to chronic inflammation

Chronic stress also contributes to chronic inflammation, a big driver in cancer development. While acute inflammation is a necessary part of your body’s immune response to injury and infection, chronic inflammation is quite the opposite. It is a persistent, low-grade inflammatory state that can silently damage your tissues and increase cancer risk. Chronic stress encourages the release of inflammatory molecules like cytokines and chemokines that trigger a state of chronic inflammation (4). This prolonged inflammatory environment creates an ideal breeding ground for cancer cells, aids their ability to invade surrounding tissues, and even helps them evade the immune system’s surveillance. Moreover, chronic inflammation can lead to DNA damage, increasing the likelihood of cancerous mutations.

4. Long-term stress is associated with depressed immune function

While short-term stress can actually boost your immune system, chronic stress has been shown to weaken your immune system over time (5). As your body’s primary defense system, the immune system when compromised is less likely to detect and eliminate harmful cancer cells and pathogens. Moreover, chronic stress impairs the production and function of immune cells, such as T cells and Natural Killer cells, which play vital roles in seeking out and eliminating cancer cells (6). This weakened immune response not only makes it harder for your body to prevent cancer from developing, but also hinders its ability to control cancerous growth once it starts.

5. Chronic stress promotes unhealthy behaviors

Chronic stress is also a catalyst for unhealthy behaviors that increase cancer risk. When we are stressed, we often turn to coping mechanisms that are detrimental to our health, such as overeating, consuming excessive alcohol, or using tobacco products. According to one survey, one in four Americans reported overeating when stressed. The same survey found a positive correlation between stress levels and smoking tobacco (7). Although these behaviors may provide temporary relief from stress, they also contribute to cancer development in the long run. As we already know, alcohol and tobacco are known carcinogens with strong links to several cancer types, including breast, liver, lung, and mouth cancers. Additionally, excessive consumption of sugary and high-fat foods can lead to weight gain and obesity, both established risk factors for various types of cancer.

While chronic stress can have profound health implications, it’s important to remember that it’s not a life sentence—it can be addressed and improved. Useful, evidence-based strategies for combating stress include regular exercise, therapeutic breathing exercises, meditation, prioritizing quality sleep, and spending time in nature. However, depending on the nature and severity of your stress, it may be advisable to consult a medical professional who can assess your situation and offer guidance tailored to your specific needs. Working with a Behavioral Emotional Spiritual Therapy (BEST) practitioner at Hope4Cancer can also help with uncovering and healing deep or persistent forms of stress. Don’t hesitate to take the steps necessary to manage your stress and regain control of your health!


  1. American Psychological Association. 2022. More than a quarter of U.S. adults say they’re so stressed they can’t function.
  2. Lin J, Epel E. 2022. Stress and telomere shortening: Insights from cellular mechanisms. Ageing Res Rev73:101507.
  3. Tilan J, Kitlinska J. 2010. Sympathetic Neurotransmitters and Tumor Angiogenesis-Link between Stress and Cancer Progression. J Oncol2010:539706.
  4. Liu YZ, Wang YX, Jiang CL. 2017. Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases. Front Hum Neurosci11:316.
  5. Dhabhar FS. 2014. Effects of stress on immune function: the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Immunol Res58:193-210.
  6. Wyman PA, Moynihan J, Eberly S, Cox C, Cross W, et al. 2007. Association of family stress with natural killer cell activity and the frequency of illnesses in children. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med161:228-34.
  7. American Psychological Association. 2006. Americans Engage in Unhealthy Behaviors to Manage Stress.

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