Intended for healthcare professionals


Does stress cause cancer?

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 16 October 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1015

There's no good evidence of a relation between stressful events and cancer

  1. Rob McGee, senior lecturer in health promotion
  1. senior lecturer in health promotion

    Papers p 1027

    In 1893 Snow presented what might be the first statistical summary of the psychological characteristics of patients with breast or uterine cancer.1 Some 250 women with these cancers were described as having a “general liability to the buffets of ill-fortune.” Over 100 years later we still find researchers preoccupied with showing whether stressful life events are related to cancer—as in this week's study by Protheroe et al (p 1027)2. Many clearly believe that life is more stressful than ever before and that one consequence of this ubiquitous stress is disease, including cancer. Sontag describes this as a metaphorical view of disease as the “outward expression of character.”3 In more practical terms, patients with cancer may believe that their disease results from too much stress and relatives may feel guilty for contributing to the emotional ill health of the patient. Such beliefs may also have a bearing on what people do about seeking and sticking to treatment. It is important therefore to have a clear idea of what the evidence does show.

    Two recent literature reviews have concluded that there is no good evidence for any relation between stressful life events and breast cancer,4 5 and both point out that the typical …

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