Various scientific studies reveal the most common causes of cancer

Years of smoking, drinking alcohol and overeating are thought to damage DNA and weaken the body’s defenses, creating an ideal environment for cancer to develop.

But research has shown that a single traumatic event can lead to the development of a deadly disease years later.

Things like a painful divorce, the death of a family member, or a serious injury can have a deep impact on you and impair your response to stress later in life, potentially increasing your risk of cancer.

A 2019 study of more than 54,000 women found that women who had experienced a traumatic event, such as a car accident or assault, and had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder were twice as likely to develop ovarian cancer compared to women who had not experienced trauma.

A 2022 study of 278 patients found that the majority of patients diagnosed with head and neck and pancreatic cancer experienced a stressful event within five years of their cancer diagnosis.

However, other studies have found less conclusive links between cancer and stress. A 2016 study of more than 100,000 women in the UK found no link between stressful life events and breast cancer risk.

Based on these studies, Dr. Andrea Lynn Roberts says the scientific link between cancer and stress is not very strong.

“It’s true that stressful events that lead to PTSD and lifelong emotional problems can affect your health and increase your risk of developing a range of diseases,” she explained. “For example, the relationship between stress and heart disease is much stronger than the relationship with cancer. If your stress levels are high, I don’t think cancer is something you should be worried about.”

For decades, scientists have been investigating the relationship between cancer and stress.

“Stress can have a profound effect on how the body functions,” said Lorenzo Cohen, M.D., director of MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Program. “Our hypothesis is that stress predisposes the body to cancer and suppresses the body’s natural defenses against cancer and other diseases.”

Experts say a single traumatic event can lead to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which can lead to lifelong problems.

Cohen says doctors believe chronic stress can cause cellular changes in the body that can ultimately lead to cancer.

Under extreme stress, the body constantly produces hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which activate the body’s “natural alarm system.”

“Not being able to settle for long periods of time can have an impact on the body, weakening the immune system, causing digestive problems and potentially making it easier for cancer to grow,” says Dr. Anil Sood, professor of gynecologic oncology and reproductive medicine at MD Anderson.

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), anyone who feels stressed may engage in behaviors that increase their cancer risk, such as smoking, drinking more alcohol, and not getting enough exercise.

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