Stress and Cancer: What’s the Link?

Feeling stressed? Well, that’s life. Whether you are under pressure to fulfil expectations, late for an appointment or buckling under an ever growing list of responsibilities, stress and anxiety are part of normal, everyday existence in Singapore.

In healthy doses, stress can drive us to perform better. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that stress could have lasting implications on our health and more specifically, our cancer risk factors.

Read on as we explore the connections, straightforward and meandering, between stress and cancer.

Does stress cause cancer?

Stress, depression and anxiety

The answer to the foremost question on your mind is: maybe. Conversations on mental health having only recently entered the public arena, research on this matter is still young and as such, no concrete verdict has been reached.

As with all matters of the heart (and mind), distinctions between types of stress are hard to draw, and studies like this one conducted in 2018 on breast cancer are forced to rely on broad definitions – in this case, chronic stress caused by life events.

Meanwhile, other studies like this 2004 review on depression and this 2019 study on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – nonetheless important – fail to shed light on how the more quotidian, non-clinical pressures of life affect your cancer odds.

The good news is, we do have some answers. The 2018 study demonstrates an association between chronic stress from life events and breast cancer incidence. Likewise, the 2004 review finds stress and depression possible risk factors for cancer, given that a stress-weakened immune system is less able to weed out cancer cells.

While unable to establish general causality between stress and cancer, depression and anxiety has been linked to higher incidence of lung, oral, prostate and skin cancers.

These tentative conclusions are however matched with certainty when it comes to the effects of stress on cancer.

Does stress worsen cancer?

Stress while working from home

Cancer patients and survivors will vouch that being diagnosed felt like the singular worst moment in their lives. Although 1 in 4 people develop cancer in their lifetimes in Singapore, a cancer diagnosis is never easy to accept.

But as cancer diagnoses are on the rise, so are survival rates. And that’s why the following discoveries are now more significant than ever.

As it turns out, stress can worsen cancer. A 2018 literature review discusses gut flora imbalance caused by stress, which can promote the formation of tumors, a symptom of cancer. In addition, the evidence shows psychological stress can lead to chemotherapy drug resistance.

Abnormal levels of stress hormones can also prevent your body from effectively killing diseased cells, while chronic stress that increases your blood circulation could hasten the spread of cancer cells throughout the body. Correspondingly, depressive symptoms are linked to poorer cancer survival rates, this study shows.

This means that stress can not only cause cancer to spread more quickly, but also reduce the effectiveness of treatment and therefore, the chances of survival. Cancer-free or cancer warrior, you need to learn to relax.

Stress relief tips to prevent and manage cancer

Stress relief at home, weekends

At this point, you might be feeling lucky that your stress levels are usually under control. But life certainly hasn’t gotten any easier, and since depression, anxiety and other psychological problems can be a product of cumulative stress, it’s always helpful to have these stress-relieving tactics in your arsenal.

#1   Practice mindfulness

A recent buzzword from the enlightened world of self-care, mindfulness is about much more than just paying attention. Being mindful is a practiced skill that can help you stay calm in stressful situations, and present in the moment when worries threaten to take your thoughts on a rollercoaster ride.

Try meditating for 15 minutes each day, or practice grounding techniques (as easy as identifying five red objects in your surroundings, for example) that can come in handy later.

#2   Establish boundaries in your schedule

Closing the lid of your work laptop punctually at the end of a work day takes more discipline than it should. But once you’ve done it, the evening stretches out before you with the inviting warmth of a well-deserved rest. As you’ll discover, drawing boundaries in your schedule for work and play can be extremely rewarding.

Likewise, ensure you have sufficient sleep each night so you have the mental strength to face the new day.

#3    Watch your alcohol and tobacco consumption

You’ve heard a million times that smoking causes cancer. Perhaps less mentioned is the cumulative effect alcohol consumption has on your cancer risk. Consume in moderation and if possible, quit smoking. During stressful periods, take care not to consume more of either, but learn to cope with the pressure in a healthy way.

#4   Don’t stress about the stress

Especially when your stress has begun to leak into other areas of your life, it’s easy to become stressed – as odd as it sounds – about the stress. Instead of fixating belligerently on stress as a negative emotion, focus on making yourself feel better. An optimistic approach can make all the difference when your world seems to be in shadow.

#TiqOurWord Worrying about cancer is counterproductive, and Cancer Insurance can remove this source of stress from the equation. Premiums from as low as S$0.27/day1 are a minuscule price to pay for the assurance that you are covered against cancer at any stage. Find out more about Cancer Insurance from Tiq by Etiqa here.

#5   Exercise regularly and eat healthy

Being overweight significantly increases your risk of a large array of cancers, so it’s important to maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise. Additionally, diets high in certain nutrients can decrease your risk of some cancers, such as lycopene and polyphenols against prostate cancer in men.

Equally importantly, paying close attention to your health can have a positive effect on your mental state. Exercise literally makes you happier, by increasing your endorphin and dopamine levels, while improving your cognitive function and self-esteem in the long run. Clearly, it’s a win-win.

No stress

Whether you’re fighting cancer or simply looking to prevent it, stress is bad news and there’s so much you can do to prevent worry from finding a foothold in your mind. First, it helps to know that you’ve done everything in your power to prepare for the future.

That includes having the right protection to face cancer head-on. Cancer Insurance offers coverage on all stages of cancer, with other attractive perks such as a 6% yearly renewal discount if you stay in good health. Learn more here.

Past that point, close your eyes and breathe deep.


1 Premium is based on S$50,000 cover for a 20-year old non-smoking male. Age means the age at the next birthday.

Information is accurate as at 27 November 2020. This policy is underwritten by Etiqa Insurance Pte. Ltd. (Company Reg. No. 201331905K. Protected up to specified limits by SDIC. You should seek advice from a financial adviser before deciding to purchase the policy. If you choose not to seek advice, you should consider if the policy is suitable for you. As this product has no savings or investment feature, there is no cash value if the policy ends of if the policy is terminated prematurely. It is usually detrimental to replace an existing policy with a new one. A penalty may be imposed for early termination and the new plan may cost more or have less benefit at the same cost. This advertisement has not been reviewed by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.


Tiq by Etiqa Insurance Pte. Ltd.

A digital insurance channel that embraces changes to provide simple and convenient protection, Tiq’s mission is to make insurance transparent and accessible, inspiring you today to be prepared for life’s surprises and inevitabilities, while empowering you to “Live Unlimited” and take control of your tomorrow.
With a shared vision to change the paradigm of insurance and reshape customer experience, Etiqa created the strong foundation for Tiq. Because life never stops changing, Etiqa never stops progressing. A licensed life and general insurance company registered in the Republic of Singapore and regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Etiqa is governed by the Insurance Act and has been providing insurance solutions since 1961. It is 69% owned by Maybank, Southeast Asia’s fourth largest banking group, with more than 22 million customers in 20 countries; and 31% owned by Ageas, an international insurance group with 33 million customers across 16 countries.
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