Stress is a common part of life for many people. Ongoing, long-term stress can negatively impact health in various ways, including weakening the immune system. Some research has suggested a possible link between stress and cervical cancer, but the findings are mixed.
What is cervical cancer?
Cervical cancer affects the cervix, which is the lower, narrow part of the uterus. It is caused by abnormal changes in the cells of the cervix that cause them to grow out of control.
Almost all cases of cervical cancer are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is a very common sexually transmitted infection that often causes no symptoms. In some cases, HPV can lead to cell changes in the cervix that may eventually become cancerous.
In addition to HPV infection, other risk factors for cervical cancer include:
- A weakened immune system
- Chlamydia infection
- A diet low in fruits and vegetables
- Being overweight
- Long-term use of oral contraceptives
- Multiple full-term pregnancies
However, most women with these risk factors still do not develop cervical cancer.
How could stress potentially contribute to cervical cancer risk?
Researchers have hypothesized a few different ways chronic stress could potentially play a role in cervical cancer development:
- Suppressed immune function – Long-term stress is known to weaken the immune system over time. A weakened immune system is less able to fight off HPV infection and clear abnormal cells before they become cancerous.
- Increased HPV viral load – Some research indicates that stress can reactivate latent HPV infection and increase the amount of virus present. Higher HPV viral loads may increase the risk of cell changes.
- Hormone changes – Stress triggers the release of hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. There is some evidence that long-term hormone imbalances can create an environment in the cervix that encourages abnormal cell growth.
- Unhealthy stress coping behaviors – People who cope with stress in unhealthy ways, like smoking or excessive alcohol use, may indirectly increase their risk of cervical cancer.
What does the research say?
A number of studies have looked for a possible link between psychological stress and cervical cancer risk, with mixed results:
- A 2020 meta-analysis of 11 studies found stress was associated with a 1.3 times higher risk of cervical cancer. The association was strongest in studies that assessed long-term or chronic stress exposure.
- A 2019 study of over 6,000 women in China found those with higher self-reported stress levels had a greater likelihood of testing positive for high-risk HPV strains.
- A 2010 review reported that out of 37 studies assessing the relationship between stress and cervical cancer, two-thirds found a positive association.
- Other studies, however, have not found evidence that stress increases cervical cancer risk, including a 2021 cohort study of over 58,000 women in Denmark.
Overall the findings are mixed, with some studies showing a link between stress and cervical cancer but others showing no association. More high-quality research is still needed.
Can reducing stress lower cervical cancer risk?
Because the research is inconclusive, there is no guarantee that decreasing stress levels will directly lower cervical cancer risk.
However, managing stress through healthy behaviors like exercise, meditation, therapy, or medication can still be beneficial. Stress harms health and quality of life in many other ways, so reducing high stress is still generally recommended.
Lowering stress through healthy coping techniques may have indirect positive effects, like:
- Strengthening the immune system function
- Reducing inflammation in the body
- Decreasing behaviors like smoking used as unhealthy stress coping mechanisms
- Improving compliance with regular Pap smear screenings
While not guaranteed to prevent cervical cancer, managing stress is still smart for overall wellbeing.
Can cervical cancer cause stress?
Receiving a cervical cancer diagnosis leads to increased stress for many patients. High levels of anxiety and depression are common both during and after cancer treatment.
Coping with cancer is extremely challenging emotionally and mentally. Common cancer-related stressors include:
- Fear and uncertainty about the future
- Worry over treatment outcomes
- Disruption of work, family, and social life
- Fatigue and pain from treatments like chemotherapy
- Grief over loss of normal health
- Distress over body changes from surgery or treatment side effects
- Financial stress from medical costs
Managing stress, anxiety and depression during cancer treatment is very important. Patients should take advantage of mental health services and support systems to cope with the significant life disruption that cancer causes.
Tips for relieving stress
Here are some healthy ways to manage high stress that may help lower cervical cancer risk:
- Get regular exercise – Aim for 30+ minutes per day of moderate activity like brisk walking. Exercise reduces cortisol and boosts endorphins to relieve stress.
- Practice relaxation techniques – Try yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation to activate the body’s relaxation response.
- Improve time management – Plan ahead, set priorities, and delegate tasks to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
- Maintain social support – Spend time with close family and friends who can provide emotional support.
- Get enough sleep -Aim for 7-9 hours per night. Fatigue exacerbates emotional stress reactions.
- Avoid unhealthy coping behaviors – Don’t use risky behaviors like smoking, drinking excessively, or emotional eating to Deal with stress.
- Consider counseling -Speaking with a therapist can help develop healthy stress management skills.
The bottom line
There is some evidence linking high stress levels with increased cervical cancer risk, but findings are mixed. While managing stress is beneficial for overall health, more research is needed on whether lower stress directly reduces cervical cancer risk.
Women should focus primarily on addressing proven cervical cancer risk factors. Get regular Pap smears, avoid smoking, limit sexual partners, and get vaccinated against HPV. Take practical steps to reduce stress as much as possible, but don’t view it as a guaranteed cancer prevention strategy.
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Hansen SK, et al. (2021). Stressful life events and risk of cervical cancer. Cancer Medicine. 10(1):251-258. doi:10.1002/cam4.3546
Li M, et al. (2020). Stress and cervical cancer: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psycho-Oncology. 29(5):778-786. doi:10.1002/pon.5366
Schulman-Green D, et al. (2012). Managing cancer care: Coping strategies used by women with ovarian cancer. Cancer Nursing, 35(3), E17-26. doi:10.1097/NCC.0b013e31822d2177
Sharma M, et al. (2010). Relationship between psychological stress and cervical cancer: A review of evidence. Indian Journal of Medical Sciences. 64(4):153-60. doi:10.4103/0019-5359.65656