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Stress and Cancer Prevention

Everyone suffers from psychological stress at one point or another. Though there is not one clear, agreed-upon definition, stress is the response we feel to physical, mental, or emotional pressure. We feel stressed when we are pushed to our limits or perceive the demands on us to exceed our resources.

The most common sources of stress include: 

  • Work (job related)
  • Finances,
  • Major life events like births, deaths, or divorce and
  • Major illness or injury. 

A cancer diagnosis can be a huge source of stress both to the patient and to their loved ones. 

Stress can negatively affect our health in many ways outlined later in this article. The full impact is hard to measure, but the issue of stress is global.

  • According to a survey conducted by the Mental Health Foundation of London in 2018, about 74% of the population of the UK has suffered from severe conditions of stress at some phase of their life.
  • According to SADAG, South-African Depression and Anxiety Group, one in every 6 individuals in South Africa suffers from anxiety, stress, depression, and substance abuse. Moreover, it doesn’t include individuals with serious mental health problems.
  • emotional stress of coping with cancer diagnosisResearch has found that in the US, socioeconomic status and race both impact stress, with black and US-born Hispanic people reporting higher levels of stress compared to white people.

YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEMS 

During a stress response, the release of cortisol alters our immune system so that we can deal with danger and respond to injury if necessary. However, over time, chronic stress, and those maintained high levels of cortisol, can damage communication within the immune system, reducing its effectiveness.

Stress also slows our production of lymphocytes, which are the white blood cells that defend against infection. When lymphocyte levels are kept low due to chronic stress, we become more susceptible to getting sick, and our body can take longer to recover from illness.

stress is a natural response

Our bodies have a natural, physiological reaction to danger or threats. The nervous system sparks this response. It begins when the hypothalamus, part of the brain, signals the release of stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) which activate the autonomic nervous system. This triggers a physiological response throughout the body, including:

  • increase in heart rate
  • rapid breathing
  • high blood pressure
  • flushed skin
  • dilated pupils

You may know this as the “fight or flight” response. This is meant to happen in response to acute stressors, and when limited, is not harmful to the body. However, when stress is long-term or chronic, the effect that this response has on our bodily systems can be hurtful.

RESPIRATORY SYSTEM

The respiratory system is the first to be affected by stress. A person in a situation of stress may immediately experience shortness of breath and rapid breathing. This is because the airway constricts due to the release of stress hormones and the lungs begin to work more rapidly in order to supply more oxygen to the body.

Such a situation is easy to handle by a healthy person who is not suffering from any respiratory disease. However, the presence of respiratory illness can worsen the effects of stress on the respiratory system. It becomes difficult for a person with asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) to breathe properly in a situation of stress. Stress can also worsen asthma attacks.

Muscles

One of the quickest physiological responses to stress is the reflex reaction of muscles. When the body is in a situation of stress, muscles tense up and become taut. It is the body’s initial way of guarding against injury.

In situations of acute stress, such as facing a growling dog on the street, our muscles will tense, but they will relax when the stress passes. However, in cases of chronic stress, such as a long-term high-pressure job, the reaction may lead to stiffness of muscles in the neck, head and shoulders. This can also cause migraines, tension headaches and musculoskeletal pain in the extremities.

HEART AND CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH

The cardiovascular system of the body, including the heart and blood vessels, is also significantly affected by stress. The cardiovascular system is affected differently in cases of acute and chronic stress.

In a situation of acute stress such as an approaching deadline, a minor car accident or being stuck in traffic, the heart muscles began to contract rapidly leading to increased heart rate. Blood vessels dilate in order to pump more blood to the organs and thus blood pressure is elevated.

When acute stress is overcome, the body returns to its normal physiological state. However, when a person suffers chronic stress, these symptoms are prolonged. The constant elevation of blood pressure and increased heart rate can lead to inflammation of the circulatory system, hypertension, heart attack and stroke. 

GUT/DIGESTIVE SYSTEM

Stress also significantly affects the digestive system. The presence of millions of sensory neurons in the digestive system compels it to respond to a situation of stress. Among these, it can trigger:

  • Pain and bloating.
  • Changes in the condition of gut bacteria.
  • Changes in eating habits, heartburn or acid reflux
  • Changes in how food moves through the gut, causing diarrhea or constipation.

STRESS AND CANCER

Stress, through this long-term impact on multiple body systems, may increase your risk of developing cancer. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the three ways this can happen are by:

  1. Making your immune system weak and vulnerable
  2. Altering the hormone levels in your body 
  3. Leading to unhealthy behaviours like increased alcohol consumption, bad eating habits and smoking 

Apart from the everyday stressors that have the potential to increase cancer risk those with cancer may be more strongly affected by psychological stress.

Numerous studies have suggested that chronic stress increases the ability of tumours to grow in size and spread (metastasize) due to the presence of the stress hormone norepinephrine.

Chronic stress can also affect our mental health and cause depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and feelings of helplessness. This may worsen outcomes in cancer patients as it affects behaviours such as adhering to treatment and making healthy choices.

Apart from the role of stress in potentially increasing cancer risk, those with cancer may be more strongly affected by psychological stress.

Numerous studies have suggested that chronic stress increases the ability of tumours to grow in size and spread (metastasize) through the stress hormone norepinephrine.

Chronic stress can also affect our mental health and cause depression, anxiety, sleep problems, and feelings of helplessness. This may worsen outcomes in cancer patients as it affects behaviours such as adhering to treatment and making healthy choices.

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