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Stress: the cancer connection?

Reading time: 10 minutes

Psychological stress has long been linked to cancer. More than 2,000 years ago, Galen, a Greek physician, noted that depressed people were more prone to developing the disease. In 1759, an English surgeon wrote that cancer went along with “disasters in life, as occasion much trouble or grief.”

A German physician named Dr Ryke Geerd Hamer further proved the mind-body cancer connection. Shortly after his son Dirk’s sudden and untimely death, Dr Hamer was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Since his son was in good health in general and had never been seriously ill, Dr Hamer began to wonder if the shocking loss of his son was somehow related to the development of his own cancer. This hypothesis was just the start of a fascinating scientific journey.

As Dr Hamer, then a head internist at a cancer clinic at the University of Munich, began delving into the history of his cancer patients, he discovered a vital correlation. They had all undergone some form of shocking trauma—which he called “conflict shocks”—prior to diagnosis. He hypothesized that since all bodily processes are controlled by the brain, these acute stressful incidents manifested as disease and malfunction of specific organs. After poring over thousands of patients’ medical records and brain scans, Dr Hamer concluded that every single disease—not just cancer—could be linked back to these conflict shocks.

A common theme

Dr Hamer’s research makes perfect sense. In my clinical experience, I’ve found that stress from ongoing emotional conflicts—bad marriages, negative parent-child relationships or sibling disagreements—plays a crucial role in the development of every single one of my patients’ illnesses. You read that correctly: unresolved conflicts from past or present relationships greatly affect our well-being. Repressing these long-held emotions has a tremendous negative impact and allows stress to brew in our bodies.

Resolving conflicts and getting a handle on stress are as vital to your recovery or continued health as eating your vegetables, taking your supplements, undergoing chemotherapy or having surgery. I strongly encourage everyone to have a serious conversation with themselves, God, a health care practitioner, or a trusted friend or family member to find out if there’s an emotional conflict in their lives that needs to be addressed.

I feel so strongly about this topic, I devoted an entire chapter of my book, The Cancer Revolution, to the importance of stress reduction.

The link between stress and cancer

It’s not hard to understand how chronic stress negatively impacts the body. After all, the fight-or-flight response ingrained in humans was meant to help protect us from predators and other perceived threats—in the short term. The limbic system does its job, sending blood pressure and heart rate skyrocketing and prompting the adrenal glands to churn out adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. Once we have evaded the danger, our hormone levels normalize and the body returns to a state of equilibrium.

But when stress levels remain elevated over time, all those stress hormones stay in the bloodstream, increasing the risk of several health conditions, including anxiety, depression, gastrointestinal issues, sleep problems, heart issues and memory concerns. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. According to the National Cancer Institute, chronic stress also negatively impacts immune function and tumor growth.

A landmark animal study revealed that when mice injected with human tumors were secluded from other mice—a situation that induced stress—their tumors were more likely to grow and metastasize. Those stress hormones we just discussed—particularly cortisol and norepinephrine—also promote inflammation and cancer growth. And stress itself suppresses the body’s production of immune cells, creating the perfect environment for malignant cells to take hold and multiply.

Ten stress-reduction strategies for every schedule, budget and fitness level

Fortunately, there are several readily available solutions out there for effectively relieving stress. Time and again, we’ve seen patients at the Center heal faster and live better once they put these treatments and suggestions into action. Better still, they can do most of these stress-relieving therapies at home without the aid of a qualified health care practitioner. These powerful tools and treatments work, not only on the mind but also on the total body, restoring peace, reducing stress and anxiety, and helping you tremendously on your wellness journey.

I’ve heard all the excuses from patients: “I’m too busy,” “It’s too expensive” or “I’m too out of shape!” The following stress-reducing techniques can fit into any schedule, budget or fitness level, and there are certainly a handful here that you can implement starting today.

1. Yoga

The ancient practice of yoga requires physical and spiritual focus and discipline. Combining postures, rhythmic breathing and meditation reduces stress and promotes overall well-being. This exercise form aligns mind, body and spirit and forces you to detach from the world, quiet your mind and focus on the divine.

Aside from offering mental health benefits, yoga has also been shown to increase energy, flexibility and strength; boost circulation; stimulate immune function; and promote the production of mood-enhancing chemicals.

Yoga’s adjunct cancer therapy benefits have also been scientifically proven. Countless studies support its ability to reduce stress and improve mood and quality of life. And one study out of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center revealed that cancer patients with lymphoma who practiced Tibetan yoga slept deeper and longer than their non-yoga-practicing counterparts. They also required less medication for sleep. Better sleep is crucial for lowering cortisol levels, putting a damper on inflammation and ultimately reducing stress.

If you don’t have the time or budget to join a yoga studio, several low-cost and no-cost options are available. For example, you can purchase yoga DVDs or join online classes on YouTube and other streaming platforms.

2. Deep breathing and meditation

Most people don’t pay much attention to breathing; we often take it for granted because it’s automatic. But being mindful of how we breathe can make a world of difference when it comes to stress reduction.

Typically, people breathe shallowly, from the chest rather than the diaphragm. This practice puts the body into an oxygen-deprived state. Breathing deeply not only oxygenates the body but also promotes relaxation. It may even help you fight off cancer and other health concerns by reducing the number of free radicals that damage cells and by helping lower blood sugar and insulin levels.

You don’t have to meditate while practicing deep breathing, but it helps tremendously with controlling your mind and thoughts. It also lowers high blood pressure and can help reduce symptoms associated with cancer, such as pain and fatigue.

It takes a bit of time and determination to incorporate deep breathing and meditation into your daily practice, but the benefits are worth it. Countless smartphone apps, online tutorials and streaming services can help teach you the proper way to meditate, most for a nominal fee.

3. Qigong and tai chi

If you want to combine meditation with low-impact exercise, you might try qigong or tai chi. Qigong, which translates to “energy practice” in Mandarin Chinese, helps promote healing and relaxation by rebalancing energy flow through the body. Tai chi was derived from qigong and tends to be a little more physically and mentally challenging. However, both are wonderful for combating stress and balancing energy.

Why is balancing energy important? All the body’s biochemical processes rely on energy. Your well-being is affected if energy isn’t flowing correctly or is out of balance. Though qigong has been around for thousands of years and tai chi has been practiced since the 1600s, these ancient practices have only recently made headway in Western medicine.

Science supports these exercise modalities as well. In a meta-analysis of 13 controlled trials evaluating 592 study participants, qigong and tai chi improved quality of life, boosted immunity, reduced fatigue and brought down high cortisol levels in subjects who practiced them.

You can learn qigong through instructional videos; however, you may need more guided assistance to learn the movements and techniques of tai chi effectively. Look online for a practitioner or studio near you.

4. Massage

Massage is a well-known stress buster. But did you know that getting a massage offers some of the same health benefits as the exercises mentioned above? In addition to reducing stress and alleviating anxiety, massage stimulates circulation and helps move lymph throughout the body. This process helps balance your hormones, stimulates the immune system and may even quell common cancer symptoms such as nausea, pain, depression and fatigue.

One study, published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, revealed that women with breast cancer who received three 30-minute massages each week for five weeks had more energy and less pain and were less angry and depressed than study subjects who did not receive regular massages. More impressive, that same study showed an increase in natural killer (NK) cells and lymphocyte counts (crucial for fighting cancer) and a boost in dopamine levels in the participants who received massages.

 Though massage was once thought to harm people with cancer due to its circulation-boosting properties, if you avoid the tumor area, in most cases, this therapy can be a safe way to relieve stress and provide total-body benefits. Finding a massage therapist near you is simple; however, if you have cancer and want to work with a therapist who understands your condition, you can search for an oncology massage practitioner.

5. Aromatherapy

Pleasing scents from candles, lotions and other household items can certainly make your home smell good, but these fragrances are far from authentic aromatherapy. True aromatherapy uses pure oils—created from roots, seeds, leaves and blossoms—of healing and therapeutic plants to help you de-stress and improve total-body wellness. These oils, believed to have the highest vibrational energy of any substance, are thought to raise the body’s energy, boosting immune function. Though aromatherapy has been used for thousands of years, it has only recently taken hold with integrative and holistic healers in Western medicine.

Like many of the therapies discussed above, aromatherapy positively affects mood and reduces stress, anxiety, pain and fatigue. In addition to breathing them in, you can massage essential oils into the skin (usually with a carrier oil like coconut or jojoba) or dilute them in a diffusor or vaporizer. (I don’t typically suggest ingesting them as they can be quite potent.) Some of the most common oils for stress relief are lavender, rose, frankincense, lemon, orange, sandalwood and bergamot.

One caveat: If you have an estrogen-dependent tumor (i.e., breast or ovarian), be careful with essential oils such as sage, fennel and aniseed. They contain estrogen-like compounds that may promote tumor growth. Your best bet is to work with a qualified aromatherapist if you have any concerns.

6. Journaling

One tool that’s great for stress reduction and emotional healing is journaling. Better still, it’s free and can be done from the comfort of your own home. Spending as little as 15 minutes a day putting your thoughts on paper, recalling the events of the day or setting goals can help you process, sort out and unload all the challenges you face—whether or not you have cancer or any other health concerns. It’s an excellent emotional outlet that provides clarity and reduces stress. Journaling helps release those pent-up emotions and resolve issues you may not even realize are plaguing you.

I also encourage patients to share the thoughts they journal with a spouse, family member or close friend. This honest and open communication can be even more therapeutic than the journaling itself.

7. Humor and daily laughter

“Laughter each day keeps the doctor away” may not be the saying, but it should be. Humor and laughter are powerful medicine—especially in times of stress and illness. Laughter has been scientifically proven to boost the immune system, minimize the stress response, and increase our pain tolerance.

Watch a funny show, pick up a humorous book, look up silly memes online or just surround yourself with people who make you smile and laugh. It’s one of the best therapies out there.

8. Nightly hot bath

There’s nothing better than a long, hot bath at the end of the day. In addition to relaxing your muscles and improving circulation, this mini time-out offers you a chance to spend a little time alone reading, meditating or just taking a break from the hectic pace of everyday life.

Make your bathroom a sanctuary of relaxation by lighting candles, listening to soft music, adding detoxifying Epsom or Celtic salts to the water, or enhancing your de-stressing ritual with a few drops of pure lavender oil.

The following stress-reducing techniques focus on emotional healing and require the assistance of a trained professional. The first therapy can be done virtually or over the phone. Please use the resource provided to find an experienced practitioner.

9. Recall healing

Developed by holistic wellness expert Gilbert Renaud, PhD, recall healing is based on the concept that cancer can be caused by “conflict shocks,” or profound emotional conflicts that manifest concurrently in the psyche, brain and corresponding organ in which the cancer is located. “Emotional reflex centers” in the brain are linked to extreme emotions such as anger, grief and sadness, which are connected to specific organs. Recall healing suggests that cancers develop in the particular organs related to the emotional center in the brain that is disturbed by the type of conflict.

A recall healing practitioner helps uncover and eliminate any underlying conflicts by asking questions about your personal and family history, life events, beliefs and thoughts, and any other information that might help get to the root cause of your illness. Once these issues are recognized and resolved, your healing can begin.

Though anyone can benefit from recall healing, in my clinical experience, patients with cancer obtain incredible, self-proclaimed “life-changing,” results from this therapy, sometimes in as little as one to two sessions. To find a practitioner, visit

10. EVOX therapy

When it comes to stress relief, one of the most effective and widely recommended therapies we use at the Center is EVOX. This treatment alleviates stress and anxiety using something called Perception Reframing.

When a person speaks, the energy in their voice reflects their feelings on specific topics. The EVOX records this voice energy, plotting the feedback on a Perception Index graph. Using this graph, EVOX determines which frequency signatures would most effectively reduce a patient’s unique stressors. The signatures are then transported to a hand cradle and transmitted to the patients as they concentrate solely on the troubling topic and listen to relaxing music.

This remarkable tool actually “remaps the brain” and does an incredible job of relieving stress and anxiety. It works so well that we recommend EVOX to every patient who comes to the Center. To learn more, visit

To recap

As you can see, several different options exist for reducing stress and reclaiming balance in your life. I encourage you to explore and take advantage of these solutions so you can live your best life. Your emotional health matters for you and your loved ones.


Leigh Erin Connealy, MD, is the medical director of the Cancer Center for Healing and the Center for New Medicine in Irvine, CA. Dr Connealy’s multidisciplinary treatment protocols, team of healthcare professionals, and holistic approach to health and healing have made the Centers the largest integrative/functional medicine clinic in North America, visited by more than 64,000 patients from all over the world. Author of The Cancer Revolution and Be Perfectly Healthy and a sought-after speaker who has appeared on numerous TV and radio shows, webinars and podcasts, Dr Connealy has been named one of the Top Functional & Integrative Doctors in the US.

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Article Topics: Cancer, immune system, stress
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