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Stress and Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

Stress Impacts Immune System, Affects Sleep, Causes Health Problems


Updated January 07, 2010

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Stress happens when push comes to shove.  If you experience some force, pressure or demand on your body, mind, or emotions that causes tension or distress, you will respond or react in some way.  For some, stress is a powerful motivator, and for others it may cause emotional, mental, and even physical symptoms.  Let's take a look at stress and see whether it may be a risk factor for breast cancer.

Common Stressors to Watch Out For

Life is full of opportunities for stress.  Since stressors are so varied, you might like to keep in mind this short list of common life events that trigger stress responses:

  • Loss of a close relative, friend, or pet
  • Loss of a spouse to death or divorce
  • Divorce of one's parents
  • Job loss
  • Workplace conflicts
  • Economic crisis
  • Severe illness – your own or that of a close relative
  • Family and personal relationships

Emotional Distress and Vulnerability to Breast Cancer

"You can't tell me I didn't have breakup cancer," said Katherine Russell Rich in her book The Red Devil. She found a breast lump right after her divorce and was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer. Elizabeth Edwards was helping her husband campaign for Vice President when she found her breast lump.  You may know somebody with a similar story – after a period of chronic stress or significant loss, they found a lump and were diagnosed with cancer.

It may seem natural to associate negative emotions with breast cancer, but researchers are not sure if, or why, your body may be more vulnerable to cancer due to stress.  And, not everybody who has stress gets sick – some people can de-stress or fight back, without risking their health.

Stress And Your Immune System

In 2008, a group of Israeli scientists studied a group of women under 45 years old.  They found that young women who had endured two or more traumatic life events had a higher than average rate of depression and greater vulnerability to breast cancer. The younger a woman was when a crisis hit, the greater their risk for cancer.

It is thought that stress may affect your nervous, endocrine and immune systems. Chronic stress may weaken your immune system, leaving you with less resistance to disease.  In the Israeli study, women who responded to stress with optimism and a fighting spirit seemed to have a protective emotional armor that raised their defenses against breast cancer.

Stress Is Just One Piece of the Cancer Puzzle

Dr. Margaret Lewin of Cinergy Health says that when it comes to direct cause and effect in humans, the true relationship between stress and cancer remains elusive.  There have been many studies done on stress and cancer, but getting conclusive results from such a mixed bag of factors is difficult, to say the least.

"For example, highly-stressed people may drink, eat and smoke more – thus indirectly raising the risk of various types of cancer," notes Dr. Lewin.  Stress may trigger lifestyle responses that affect your health.  Those responses are hard to boil down into data that can be examined in a scientific study.

Stress and Life – Find Your Balance

There's an old joke that the only people who have no stress are those who live in graveyards. But stress is a normal part of life to which we all respond differently, depending on our personalities, backgrounds, and situations.  While stress can provide great motivation for some people, it can cause health problems such as headaches, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, dental problems, and ulcers.

Scientists aren't completely convinced that stress causes cancer, but it doesn't always make you feel better. Learn ways to reduce your stress, improve your overall health, and enjoy your life as fully as you can.


Psychological Stress and Cancer: Questions and Answers.  National Cancer Institute. Reviewed: 04/29/2008. 

Stress and Your Health:  Frequently Asked Questions. WomensHealth.gov, Office on Women's Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Last updated August 1, 2005.

Personal correspondence with Margaret Lewin, MD, FACP, Medical Director, Cinergy Health, November 5, 2009.

Breast cancer, psychological distress and life events among young women. Ronit Peled, Devora Carmil, et al. BMC Cancer 2008, 8:245.

A model of gene-environment interaction reveals altered mammary gland gene expression and increased tumor growth following social isolation.  Williams JB, Pang D, et. al Cancer Prev Res (Phila Pa). 2009 Oct; 2(10):850-61.

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  5. Risk Factors in Detail
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  7. Stress And Breast Cancer – Stress and Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

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