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Stress and cancer - the links

03 June 2014

Bad stress is bad news

pencils snapped

I'm back from the corridors of hospitals. It is three years since I underwent surgery and chemotherapy for cancer (and I have a new book published on the subject). Stress was considered to be a major cause of the cancer that invaded my body and I've had to do a big turnaround on the way I think, react and do.

We live in a fast-paced world and many of us will pay a fearsome price (one in two Australians will get some form of cancer) for the lifestyle we live. I think we all know how to manage stress from the many articles and books written on the subject (balanced life, yoga, meditation, exercise, hobby, prayer, etc.) but in this article I want to explain to you what I have discovered about the type of stress that causes a disease like cancer, and what this sort of stress does to the body to trigger cancer.

To understand how stress can create disease, we need to know what sort of stress we are referring to and from where it might be coming.

I am not talking about small challenges or setbacks that occur in the normal course of life. Everyday stress of this sort is dealt with by our body, which is uniquely equipped to combat these common worries and tensions.

In the case of stress that develops or triggers cancer, I am referring to high, prolonged anxiety, perhaps from a high-pressure/long-hours job, or constant financial difficulties, or deep strife on the home front that never seems to resolve itself. This ongoing stress, where there is little or no relief, puts a great strain on the body and wears down the immune system. One more stressful event can then trigger cancer.

Perhaps financial difficulties turn into financial ruin… perhaps the strife at home develops into an abusive or heart-breaking relationship… Now that we’ve drawn some distinctions around what sort of stress can trigger cancer, let's look at what stress does to the body.

The heart races in confusion, the gut churns around in chaos, and the stress hormone Cortisol skyrockets and remains at dangerous levels, directly suppressing the immune system. The person cannot sleep or switch off and so another hormone, called Melatonin drops, making it struggle to perform one of its important functions of inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. The hormone, Adrenaline also becomes depleted and leads to low oxygen in the cells.

The body is normally able to identify the damaged cells and destroy them before they are able to grow uncontrollably. But when the healthy body becomes unable to mount its normal defence, through harmful stress, cancerous cells are allowed to reproduce at an uncontrollable rate and threaten life.

I can hear many of you say, but life expectancy has risen. If a cancer patient "survives" the magical five year mark, all that means is that the likelihood of cancer returning reduces. Fact is that since 1980 life expectancy for patients across all cancers has increased by three years. That's great news, but in my middle years (with a lot of living yet to do) please excuse me if I'm not leaping up and down with joy.

The point is we don’t need to get cancer. Inherited cancer accounts for only five to 10 percent of all cancers, which means up to 95 percent of cancers from lifestyle choices (diet, smoking, excessive alcohol, stress, etc) and exposure (eg asbestos, sun, pollution) can be avoided.

Another Chance by Debra Vinecombe is published by Peacock Publications and endorsed by the Cancer Care Centre.

Here is an article which appeared in Scientific American which looks at Living with Cancer.