Stress & Cancer


Causes of Cancer

There is still a great deal to learn about the causes of cancer and although some cancers are clearly linked to environmental factors like cigarettes and asbestos, whilst some have genetic components, the causes of many types of cancer are not yet known.

We can hypothesise about various factors that contribute to the development of cancer but of course we all know lots of people who might score highly on many of them and yet remain disease free.

However these are some factors that I believe may contribute to illnesses generally:-

  • Environment - pollution, chemicals in food and water, etc.
  • Genetic predisposition to certain cancers.
  • Carcinogenic substances - cigarettes, excess alcohol, asbestos, coal dust, certain food additives, acrylamide in certain foods, etc.
  • Stress - personal lifestyle, e.g type A personality, workaholism and social factors like poverty, lack of support, etc.

Obviously some of these like family history are out of our control as is bad luck, which we all get from time to time. However we do have some control over others like how much care we take of our physical and emotional needs. .horse power for you!
I do believe that we need to be aware of our levels of stress and how well we take care of ourselves in different ways. We are more likely to be able to deal with our symptoms and/or treatment if we can love and nurture ourselves. The reason that I have included a section on possible causes of cancer is not to invite guilt, self blame or bad feelings. It is simply for you to consider and, if you feel the need, to get some help in changing anything that makes it harder for you to get support during your illness and treatment or hinder your recovery. put a tiger in your tank

Many people now believe that too much stress has a negative effect on our physical and mental health and reduces the capacity of our immune system.
Some stress can however be beneficial as boredom, and lack of motivation or a sense of purpose can also be debilitating. We need to get the balance right to give our immune system what it needs to get on with its job of ridding our systems of any invaders and keeping us healthy.

There are lots of good books around if you want to read up on stress and how to get the right balance.
I have found Stress For Success by Dr. Peter Hanson very useful.

Obviously the whole process of having tests, getting the dreaded diagnosis, maybe surgery, chemotherapy or radiotherapy is extremely stressful in itself. This, plus all the implications (financial, family, work, hobbies, relationships, etc.) that it then has on your life is likely to increase your stress somewhat!

This is a good time to take stock and maybe do a stress inventory. The most widely used stress scale is the Holmes Rahe scale, where life events are scored from 1-100. Obviously a high score can mean that you are increasing your risk of developing illnesses and reducing your capacity to heal yourself.

The Holmes Rahe
Social Readjustment Rating Scale

Life Event


Death of spouse




Marital separation


Prison or mental hospital confinement


Death of a close family member


Major illness or injury




Being made redundant


Marital reconciliation




Major change in health or behaviour of family member




Sexual Difficulties


Adding to family (birth, adoption, elderly parents moving in)


Major business readjustments


Major change in financial state


Death of a close friend


Change of work


Arguments with spouse


Assuming a mortgage


Foreclosure on mortgage or loan


More job responsibility


Children leaving home


In-Law trouble


Outstanding personal achievement


Wife starting or leaving work


Starting or leaving school


Major change in living conditions


Changing personal habits


Trouble with the boss


Major changes in working hours or conditions


Moving house


Moving school


Major changes in recreation


Major change in church activities


Major change in social activities


Assuming a loan under £5000


Major change in sleeping habits


Increased or reduced family get-togethers


Major changes in eating habits






Minor violations of the law


In their book Getting Well Again, the Simontons encourage cancer patients to identify the stresses going on in their lives in the 6 to 18 months prior to the onset of cancer. They then ask people to consider how they may have participated in the stressful situation either by creating it or by the way they responded to it. The object of the exercise is to identify beliefs or behaviours that are harmful and that you want to change.

The purpose of the next exercise, which is identifying 5 major stresses in your life right now and working out other ways of responding, is prevention by eliminating tensions that could predispose you to illness. dolphin schoolOf course we all know people who are under lots of stress and yet haven’t got cancer and I certainly do not want you to go into a self-blaming mode, taking on responsibility for causing your illness. However the more we can reduce our levels of stress and develop an attitude of calm and relaxation the better it is for our recovery.

So here is the exercise for you to consider.

1. List the 5 greatest stresses in your life right now.

2. Examine ways you may be participating in maintaining these.

3. Consider ways for reducing the stresses from your life.

4. If there is no reasonable way to reduce a stress, consider whether you are creating other supportive or nurturing elements in your life. Are you accepting support? Are you making a point of giving yourself pleasurable experiences during stressful times? Are you permitting yourself to express your feelings about stressful situations?

5. Consider whether you could reduce these stresses or balance them in your life if you put your own needs first more often. Do you permit yourself to consider what your own needs are? Have you attempted to find ways to meet them despite what you feel are the needs of others?

One of the things that gives me undue stress is my need to “do”, produce, tick jobs off lists. Having cancer has meant that I cannot do that much of the time and coming to terms with myself “not doing”, not being useful and needing help and support from others is still a big challenge. I know I have to change it to give myself the best chance at recovery.
What is yours?

Ways of Reducing Stress

  • Understanding what you find particularly stressful and working out ways to decrease or minimise it.
  • Practising assertiveness.
  • Developing good time management skills.
  • Learning to relax on a regular basis.
  • Having a healthy diet.
  • Regular physical exercise.
  • Having fun and allowing yourself to enjoy life!
  • Expressing your emotions clearly and safely.
  • Getting support physically, emotionally, spiritually when you need it.

Learning to Relax

You may already be able to relax easily and bring your stress levels down at will. Getting a cancer diagnosis is likely to increase anyone’s stress!
If you want to get better at relaxing you could try:-

  • relaxation exercises (there are some exercises on the Mind Power page).
  • complementary therapies (I find that some basic yoga and tai chi exercises really help me to relax.)
  • soothing music.
  • aromatherapy oils in a burner or in a bath (lavender and chamomile are good)
  • meditation.
  • breathing exercises (yoga alternative nostril breathing is very balancing).
  • physical exercise.
  • various herbal teas (especially chamomile).
  • nature and animals can be soothing and grounding.

Basic Tai Chi and Yoga exercises
Stand with you feet at shoulder width and swing your arms from side to side for a few minutes. Then do some gentle stretches with your arms and legs. Lift one leg a few inches and bend the knee whilst pretending to bounce a ball on the floor with the opposite hand. Repeat on the other side. Take a deep breath in and lift your hands up towards the ceiling and raise yourself up on your toes (try it standing feet flat first and work up to this if you have trouble balancing). As you breathe out bring you hands down and bend as far as you can comfortably taking your hands down towards the floor. Repeat this a couple of times.

Alternate nostril breathing
This may not be strictly accurate according to a yoga teacher but it’s my version! Sit comfortably, place one hand lightly on your face. Put your first and second finger on your forehead just above your nose, between your eyes (over the 3rd eye position). Now press against one nostril with your thumb and breathe in through the other nostril. Now cover that nostril with your 3rd finger and breathe out through the other nostril. Breathe in through the nostril you have just breathed out of and cover it now breathe out through the other nostril again and keep repeating this pattern of using alternate nostrils to breathe in and out.

According to a booklet called Getting started in Meditation, written by a member of the Western Buddhist Order, Kamalashila,   meditation “is an effective way of purifying the mind, of transforming negative states into creative ones. The long term effect of regular practice is to make us a more creative, mature and happy individual.” He goes on to to say, “you’ll become inclined to be better tempered, happier, more open-hearted........your capacity to think and feel will become less muddled, more pure, clear and direct.”

De-stress with natureThe metta bhavana - Buddhist meditation aims to increase our qualities of kindness, warmth and compassion towards ourselves and others - metta means loving kindness or friendliness and bhavana means developing or creating.
Regular meditators have told me that they feel more grounded, secure, relaxed and feel more able to deal with whatever life throws at them.
There are often free Buddhist meditation classes available and you can get a free catalogue of tapes on Buddhism and meditation from Dharmachakra Tapes, PO Box 50, Cambridge, CB1 3BG