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The Effect of Stress on Blood Cancers


Updated December 23, 2010

If you have a blood cancer such as leukemia or lymphoma, it is natural to feel some degree of stress or anxiety. These feelings may be caused by worry about the future, financial or family problems, or day-to-day issues such as getting to the cancer center or remembering to take medications. No matter what the cause, stress can have an impact on your health and possibly even on the outcome of your treatment.

Over the years, many scientific studies have tried to determine if stress can cause cancer, or cause it to grow faster. When the body is under stress, it releases hormones -- such as adrenaline and cortisol -- that, in the long term, can cause your immune system to become suppressed. That is why you may notice that at times in your life when you were under a lot of pressure, such as exam time in school or just before a job interview, you came down with an illness. Scientists believe that this immune system suppression may make the body more susceptible to cancers such as lymphoma.

More recently, researchers have begun to investigate the relationship between stress and genetics. They have discovered that stressful situations may cause certain genes to become activated and others deactivated, leading to changes that could potentially impact the growth of cancer. As an example, science has determined that the stress hormone cortisol can change the body’s genetics and interfere with the ability of tumor-suppressing genes to do their job.

Another study published out of Ohio State University in September 2010 investigated the impact of stress, both psychological and physical, on cancer treatment outcomes. These researchers have found that stress in the body, including high-intensity exercises, activates a protein called heat shock factor-1 which in turn activates another protein called Hsp27. The presence of Hsp27 has been shown to potentially protect cancer cells from death, even after their DNA has been damaged by radiation or chemotherapy.

While this line of research is interesting, it can also be confusing and difficult to interpret. Subjects in any of these studies are bound to have varying degrees of stress, so how is it possible to have a “control” group, that is, one with no stress to compare the rest of the subjects to? How is it possible to determine that the cellular effects that are being seen are not caused by other risk factors that the subject may have? For this reason, a direct relationship between the effect of stress and cancer cannot be proven.

Keeping this in mind, we all know that the presence of stress at the very least can have a detrimental effect on our quality of life, even if it has no activity on blood cancer. Therefore, it is in our best interest to try to limit the amount of stress we feel and learn some strategies for how to cope with our feelings.


J. Bradley Williams, Diana Pang, Bertha Delgado, Masha Kocherginsky, Maria Tretiakova, Thomas Krausz, Deng Pan, Jane He, Martha K. McClintock, and Suzanne D. Conzen. A Model of Gene-Environment Interaction Reveals Altered Mammary Gland Gene Expression and Increased Tumor Growth following Social Isolation Cancer Prev Res October 2009 2:850-861; Published OnlineFirst September 29, 2009; doi:10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-08-0238

Ragu Kanagasabai, Krishnamurthy Karthikeyan, Kaushik Vedam, Wang Qien, Qianzheng Zhu, and Govindasamy Ilangovan DNA Damage and Cellular Stress Responses Hsp27 Protects Adenocarcinoma Cells from UV-Induced Apoptosis by Akt and p21-Dependent Pathways of Survival Mol Cancer Res October 2010 8:1399-1412; Published OnlineFirst September 21, 2010; doi:10.1158/1541-7786.MCR-10-0181

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