The Oxford English Dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”1 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, a sustained stress response can be damaging. "Chronic stress results in glucocorticoid receptor resistance (GCR) that, in turn, results in failure to down-regulate inflammatory response."2 Sustained stress leads to inflammation, a known driver of cancer.
Remember that stress is not only the challenging situation—it’s also your response to the situation. Even if you cannot change the stressors in your life, you may still be able to manage your response. On this page, we explore many tools that can help you manage your stress. However, seek outside or professional help if needed. Responses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may be beyond self-help.
Your Body’s Stress Response
The physical stress response is driven by a complex cascade of nerve activation and hormones:3
The Stress Response and Cancer
Common Stressors in People with Cancer
Stress is our response to challenging situations in our lives. What is stressful for one person may not be for another. However, some events and environments are stressful for many cancer patients, survivors and caregivers:
How Stress Interacts with Cancer
When stressors and threats are frequent or constant, cortisol remains at high levels most of the time. When the stress response continues for a prolonged period, the constant bodily imbalance that it causes can be physically damaging. Over time, this delays restorative repair and pushes the body into pre-disease states.4 Stress hormones have been found to fuel cancer growth and spread.5
Can Stress Cause Cancer?
People sometimes ask, “Did stress cause my cancer?” No one has a simple answer to this question. We do not have good evidence that stress causes cancer. Those of us with years spent caring for people with cancer believe that stress can affect the cancer itself as well as a person’s experience of having cancer. We know that the chemicals released in the stress response can speed up tumor growth. These stress-response chemicals can also promote conditions such as insulin resistance, which changes the tumor microenvironment in favor of the cancer.
PTSD and Cancer
In addition to the stress from dealing with cancer, for some people with cancer and/or their caregivers, the experience can be traumatic and/or bring up past unresolved traumas. For these people, long-term problems may develop or resurface, such as adjustment difficulties, anxiety or depression. In addition to normal stress reactions, traumatic stress-like reactions may be seen in some people with cancer or their caregivers such as these:
- Intrusive upsetting thoughts
- Reacting to reminders such as follow-up scans
Natural Substances for Managing Stress
According to naturopathic oncologist Lise Alschuler, evidence shows several herbs and nutrients have antistress properties. These substances seem to work by either helping the body recover from stressful situations or supporting the body’s organs and tissues that are affected in the stress response:17
Integrative oncologist Keith Block, MD, also includes natural substances in his integrative plan for balancing stress hormones and creating healthier biorhythms. Block distinguishes among three patterns of stress adaptation:
- Hyperadapted or high-stress pattern with prolonged elevated cortisol
- Inverted stress pattern, in which the timing of cortisol and melatonin are reversed.
- Non-adapted pattern, in which cortisol levels are either consistently high or depleted, melatonin levels are low, and both hormones have no circadian rhythm
Products for Calming or Reducing Stress
The Relaxing Breath
Shanti Norris, a yoga teacher who works with people with cancer, explains: “One cannot feel anxious as long as one is breathing slowly and deeply.” Her instructions for managing stress with “The Relaxing Breath”:20
Many mind-body approaches, such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, tai chi and music therapy help with regulating breathing and heart rate, bringing on a calm state. These are discussed in more detail on these pages:
Theta Brain State
Theta brain state “is a state where tasks become so automatic that you can mentally disengage from them. The formation of thoughts and ideas that can take place during the theta state is often free flow and occurs without censorship or guilt. It is typically a very positive mental state.”23
Healthy Dozen Food Families
From Life Over Cancer:24
Eating Well to Reduce Stress
Foods can support or undermine a healthy stress response and biorhythms.
Eating Well: Strategies
Dietary strategies for supporting a healthy stress response and biorhythms:
- Reduce use of caffeine and other stimulants.
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption: alcohol as a nightcap or to relax can instead disrupt melatonin production as well as cause repeated awakening from sleep.26
- If you eat a late-night snack, keep it light and let it consist of protein and/or whole grains. Avoid eating during the hour before bedtime.27
- Include complex carbohydrates in your diet: whole grains, beans, and whole fruits and vegetables.
- Work with your doctor or dietitian/nutritionist to improve your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.
- If diet, fitness and mind-body approaches do not completely manage stress chemistry and biorhythms, consider using a combined stress hormone support supplement in addition to a program of taking a cancer-specific multivitamin and fish oil supplements and also eating what Block calls the “healthy dozen food families” listed in a side box above.
Pharmaceuticals for Managing Stress
A good integrative cancer care plan will include mind-body therapies, eating well, moving more, and possibly natural products to manage stress. Sometimes, however, these therapies may not be enough. If natural treatments alone are inadequate, then even more symptoms of stress can arise, causing needless emotional suffering.
As Dr. Keith Block points out, patients commonly resist medical treatments for stress or depression, fearing treatments indicate they are psychologically unstable. However, because managing stress is key to many aspects of wellness, consider working with your physician to see if medications—such as antidepressants, tranquilizers and even stimulants—can help you.
Evidence suggests that propranolol, a prescription drug for heart disease, may have anticancer effects, possibly in part due to its effects on stress hormones which can fuel cancer growth and spread.28
For more information about the effects of propranolol and other beta-blockers on the stress response, see Propranolol page.
Sleep and Managing Stress
Getting good sleep and rest is a key practice in creating a body that doesn’t encourage cancer. Poor sleep and stress can become a self-reinforcing cycle: unmanaged stress can disrupt biorhythms, including sleep. When sleep quality is poor, the stress response hormone cortisol rises at night when it should instead be lower. Because a chronic rise in blood cortisol can speed tumor growth and cause any number of increased health problems for people with cancer, consistently good sleep and rest are tools to combat stress. Effectively managing stress will improve the quality of sleep. For more information on sleep and rest, see our Sleeping Well page.
The loss of love causes intense feelings of helplessness in many people, perhaps by tapping into psychological wounds received in childhood through experiences of rejection and criticism.”
Stress Inventory: Creating a Stress Score
The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory assigns a score to the top stressors in people’s lives to allow people to assess their risk of developing a stress-induced breakdown. Of the 25 biggest stressors, 14 relate to changes in relationships and social support.30 The Holmes-Rahe Inventory makes a profound statement about the importance of relationships in influencing one’s health.
Mediating the stress response with social support is an important part of an integrative cancer care plan. “The effect of social support on life expectancy appears to be as strong as the effects of obesity, cigarette smoking, hypertension, or level of physical activity.”31
Medical acupuncturist Janet Spitzer, MD, and Keith Block, MD, inform us about foods and natural substances that can promote a stress response.34
Foods and Natural Products
Anything that is a stimulant increases heart rate, anxiety and the stress response:
- Caffeine in coffee, tea or chocolate
- Other stimulants, including ginseng and bitter orange
- Spicy foods
In addition, some eating patterns can promote stress:35
- Low-carb, high-fat diet
- Low-carb, high-protein diet
- High ratio of omega-6s to omega 3s
Eating Habits That Are Stress Offenders
Dr. Keith Block lists eating habits that can promote a stress response:36
- Timing of snacks and drinks (eating within one hour of bedtime; eating a heavy evening meal or snack)
Reducing stress offenders is an important step in managing stress.
Several of the therapies mentioned on this page come with cautions about interactions with other therapies or with medical conditions. For example, ashwagandha may increase testosterone, so use is not recommended by people with prostate cancer. Use is also contraindicated in patients with hemochromatosis.37 Please review cautions listed on therapy summaries or outside linked pages and consult your integrative physician before use.
Integrative Plans, Protocols and Medical Systems
|For more information about protocols, see our Protocols and Integrative Plans page.|
- Protocols and programs
- Abrams & Weil integrative medicine approaches38
- Alschuler & Gazella complementary approaches39
- Cohen & Jefferies Mix of Six anticancer practices40 Anticancer Living. New York: Viking. 2018.
- Block program41
- Geffen Seven Levels of Healing42
- Lemole, Mehta and McKee protocols43
- McKinney’s guidelines for stress management44
- Ornish Lifestyle Medicine
- Servan-Schreiber anticancer way of life45
- Traditional systems
Janet Spitzer, MD, April 16, 2018: “According to the Chinese 5 Element Theory, it would be helpful to ‘cool’ or at least not overheat the Fire element (heart, pericardium). Salty flavor would help cool the heat, while sour and excessive bitter flavors would tend to aggravate the heart. Alcohol also powerfully ‘heats’ the Heart-fire element.
I generally aim more at supporting/nourishing the adrenals when someone has chronic stress (ashwaganda, holy basil, Siberian ginseng, etc.) and decreasing oxidative stress with antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E) and decreasing inflammation (fish oil, turmeric/curcumin) and nutrients that help soothe the nervous system and support biochemical pathways (like magnesium, CoQ-10, Ribose, etc.).”
Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on December 11, 2018.
- Alschuler LN, Gazella KA. The Definitive Guide to Thriving after Cancer. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press. 2013.
- American Psychological Association: Stress
- Collaborative on Health and the Environment page on the stress response: Psychosocial Environment
- McKinney N. Naturopathic Oncology, 3rd Edition. Victoria, BC, Canada: Liaison Press. 2016.
- National Institute of Mental Health: 5 Things You Should Know About Stress
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health:
- Servan-Schreiber D. Anticancer: A New Way of Life. New York: Penguin Group. 2008.
- WebMD: What Are Probiotics?
- Prebiotin.com: Foods Containing Prebiotics
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: Essential Fatty Acids
- Edibly Educated: Why and How to Include Sea Vegetables and Algae in Your Diet
- Fortmann SP, Burda BU et al., editors. Vitamin, mineral, and multivitamin supplements for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease and cancer: a systematic evidence review for the US Preventive Services Task Force [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2013 Nov. Report No.: 14-05199-EF-1.
- Podcasts and Video: I-Thrive Radio broadcasts; this show is broadcast live on W4CS—The Cancer Support Network part of Talk 4 Radio on the Talk 4 Media Network.
- Stress Management Techniques: Nancy Gahles, DC, discusses a technique that she uses to help her patients manage stress more effectively. Listeners will learn about the three areas she focuses on and why this technique can be so effective.
- Post Traumatic Growth after Cancer: Cancer survivor expert Dr. Shani Fox talks about "post-traumatic growth" after cancer and describes why it's important to understand that cancer can be a traumatic event. She provides concrete strategies about how listeners can heal from trauma. Also see Dr. Fox's assessment tool: Are You Thriving After Cancer?
- 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
- Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary: The C-Word
- Lorenzo Cohen and Alison Jefferies: Anticancer Living: Transform Your Life and Health with the Mix of Six
- Keith I. Block, MD: Life over Cancer: The Block Center Program for Integrative Cancer Treatment
- Lise Alschuler, ND, FABNO, and Karolyn Gazella: The Definitive Guide to Cancer, 3rd Edition: An Integrative Approach to Prevention, Treatment, and Healing
- Ted Schettler, MD, MPH: The Ecology of Breast Cancer: The Promise of Prevention and the Hope for Healing
- Donald I. Abrams, MD, and Andrew T. Weil, MD: Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition
- Foundation for a Mindful Society: Mindful
- The New School at Commonweal: Dwight McKee, MD: 40 Years Practicing Integrative Cancer Medicine, Part 1
- The New School at Commonweal: Dwight McKee, MD: 40 Years Practicing Integrative Cancer Medicine, Part 2
- Wayne Jonas, MD: Your Healing Journey: A Patient’s Guide to Integrative Breast Cancer Care
- Barbara MacDonald, ND, LAc: The Breast Cancer Companion: A Complementary Care Manual: Third Edition