The Oxford English Dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances."1 Thus, stress is not so much a symptom as it is a state. Those adverse or demanding circumstances, called “stressors”, can disrupt your internal balance and call on your body to activate a stress response. This response is automatic and calls on every bodily system to bring the body back into balance. A certain amount of stress is normal—in fact, we couldn’t survive without the stress response. However, too much of a stress response over time can be damaging.
The Stress Response and Cancer
A prolonged stress response can produce a constant bodily imbalance that can be physically damaging. Organs and tissues begin to function differently in response to the continual outpouring of stress hormones and chemicals.
A prolonged stress response may compromise health and result in symptoms such as anxiety, depression and insomnia. The immune system is also affected—immune cells become preoccupied with triggering alarm reactions instead of doing their normal duties. With the body’s attention focused on dealing with stressors, the job of finding and killing cancer cells is neglected.2
Under physiologic stress, the number of your neutrophils increases, while the number of lymphocytes decreases.3 Your neutrophil:lymphocyte ratio (NLR) is an indicator of stress. It is also a strong predictor of outcomes related to surgery for for breast, lung, and kidney cancers, as shown in these results from a mid-sized observational study:4
- Higher NLR (3 or 4 or higher) is associated with a higher risk of relapse and perhaps mortality with breast cancer
- NLR 5 or higher is associated with a higher risk of relapse and mortality with kidney cancer
- NLR 5 or higher is associated with higher mortality with lung cancer
A prolonged stress response may compromise health and result in symptoms such as anxiety, depression and insomnia.
Though stress may not cause cancer, it appears that unmanaged stress can increase the likelihood that the cancer will progress, as well as decrease your quality of life.
Even when people are getting the best of cancer treatment, they often feel like they need more help with organizing their care and managing symptoms and side effects. Helpsy empowers members to take control of their health through a real-time virtual nurse support service. This service is available via mobile devices, a Helpsy website and automated phone calls.
Many tools for taming the stress response are available, many of which you can learn to do for yourself. Almost every category of complementary therapies has some useful stress-management approach. See Managing Stress, use the links in the Related Pages section below, or search our Therapy Summaries database, selecting "Stress" in the Symptoms box.
Integrative Programs, Protocols and Medical Systems
|For more information about programs and protocols, see our Integrative Programs and Protocols page.|
- Programs and protocols
- Traditional systems
Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on October 21, 2021.
- Georgetown University School of Nursing & Health Studies: Managing Mental Health after a Cancer Diagnosis
- Collaborative on Health and the Environment: Psychosocial Environment
- Psychedelic Support
- Triage Cancer
- Dr. Cynthia Li: Brave New Medicine
- Gurdev Parmar and Tina Kaczor: Textbook of Naturopathic Oncology
- Lise Alschuler and Karolyn Gazella: Managing Stress during Difficult Times
- Helpsy Inc.: Helpsy Health
- LifeExtension Nutritional Support: Diet and Lifestyle Considerations for Breast Cancer
- Block KI, Block PB, Gyllenhaal C: Integrative Treatment for Colorectal Cancer
- Integrative Cancer Review
- Martin L. Rossman, MD: Fighting Cancer from Within
- Julie Lusk: 30 Scripts for Relaxation, Imagery and Inner Healing–Volume 1
- Julie Lusk: 30 Scripts for Relaxation, Imagery and Inner Healing–Volume 2
- Barbara MacDonald, ND, LAc: The Breast Cancer Companion: A Complementary Care Manual: Third Edition
- Wayne Jonas, MD: Your Healing Journey: A Patient’s Guide to Integrative Breast Cancer Care
- Foundation for a Mindful Society: Mindful
- The New School at Commonweal: Ted Schettler: The Ecology of Breast Cancer
- Donald I. Abrams, MD, and Andrew T. Weil, MD: Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition
- Keith I. Block, MD: Life over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment
- Lorenzo Cohen and Alison Jefferies: Anticancer Living: Transform Your Life and Health with the Mix of Six
- NCCN Distress Thermometer and Problem List for Patients
- Michael Lerner: Choices In Healing: Integrating the Best of Conventional and Complementary Approaches to Cancer
- Hillingdon Oncology & Palliative Care Team : Coping with Stress: The Distress Thermometer
- Martin L. Rossman, MD: The Healing Mind
- Julie Lusk, MEd: Wholesome Resources
- O. Carl Simonton, MD, James Creighton, PhD, and Stephanie Matthews Simonton: Getting Well Again
- Joan Borysenko, PhD: Minding the Body, Mending the Mind
- Martin L. Rossman, MD: Fighting Cancer