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Can Stress Lead To Breast Cancer Spreading? 4 Tips To Reduce Stress

Medically reviewed by Leonora Valdez, M.D.
Written by Anika Brahmbhatt
Updated on January 18, 2024

  • Feelings of stress are common among people living with metastatic breast cancer.
  • Managing stress can help improve your quality of life, so it’s important to talk to your health care team about stress management strategies.
  • Professional support, mindfulness, exercise, and connecting with others are some methods that may help reduce stress for people with breast cancer.

If you’re living with metastatic breast cancer, you may be experiencing many different emotions, from sadness to rage. Among these feelings may be an increase in physical, mental, or emotional stress. A 2020 study found that more than 78 percent of women with breast cancer reported feeling stressed. Additionally, those with advanced disease were more likely to experience moderate to severe stress, depression, and anxiety.

Constant stress and worrying can take a toll on your immune system. Research has pointed to a vicious cycle between stress and diseases like cancer. Chronic (ongoing) stress may contribute to the spread of cancer, which can then lead to more stress.

It’s unrealistic to expect you to never feel stressed. You have a right to feel worried and anxious about your future living with metastatic breast cancer. However, prioritizing stress-reduction techniques can prevent these worries from further endangering your health.

If the effects of stress are getting in the way of having a positive quality of life, or if you want an extra edge in your fight against cancer, consider some techniques to help improve your emotional well-being after undergoing breast cancer treatment.

How Is Stress Related to Cancer?

It’s not always intuitive how your mental and emotional well-being connect to your physical health and disease progression. However, the connection between psychological and physical health has been a hot topic of scientific research over the past few years.

Chronic stress may require a more long-term, consistent approach, whereas acute stress may drive you to focus on finding a solution to one particular problem.

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Almost every cell in your body has receptors for stress hormones — that’s how pervasive and important they are. A 2019 study suggested that chronic psychosocial stress — such as emotional or mental stress — can lead to more immune suppression and inflammation. This stress, in turn, can increase the development and progression of cancer and decrease your quality of life.

Growing evidence suggests chronic stress influences breast cancer spreading to the bones along with distant organs such as the lungs, liver, and brain. According to the National Cancer Institute, chronic stress can lead to the release of steroid hormones called glucocorticoids, which can block the process of cancer cell death and increase resistance to chemotherapy. Research from the journal Nature has found increases in glucocorticoid receptor activity at sites where breast cancer has metastasized (spread).

How To Reduce Stress

Once you understand how stress can affect your physical health, you may want to know what steps you can take to reduce it. First, it’s important to take a moment to reflect on what kind of stress you’re experiencing: chronic or acute.

Chronic vs. Acute Stress

Chronic stress may be an ongoing difficulty you face throughout your metastatic breast cancer treatment journey. Worries about the future, your job, and your loved ones, on top of your health concerns, may make you feel stressed all the time.

One MyBCTeam member summed up the idea of chronic stress: “On the one hand, you have this serious illness … wherever you are in the process of getting past it. Then, on the other hand, you have life pressures, be it financial, children, work, other family problems, etc. … The stress of all of it can be overwhelming at times. Stuff keeps getting thrown at us continually and seems relentless.”


Social support is a vital component of coping with stress and anxiety.

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Acute stress, on the other hand, is often more intense and concentrated over a shorter period of time, before becoming less intense. For example, if you have an upcoming appointment, have just received bad news about your diagnosis or treatment, or are experiencing new side effects from a medication, you may feel acutely stressed until you have some next steps laid out.

“I’m having my yearly MRI tomorrow morning,” wrote one MyBCTeam member. “There is always so much stress and outright fear when I go for this.”

Knowing which kind of stress you are experiencing can help you understand how to manage it. Chronic stress may require a more long-term, consistent approach, whereas acute stress may drive you to focus on finding a solution to one particular problem.

4 Tips for Coping With Stress With Breast Cancer

The strategy that will best help you manage stress depends on your own personal circumstances, but there are a few techniques you might want to consider as your work toward a stress-reduction plan.

1. Connect With Others

Social support is a vital component of coping with poor mental health and possible cancer recurrence. This could mean connecting with friends, family members, mentors in your community, or support groups — online or in person. Whether the social support you receive is formal or informal, it can improve your quality of life.

“Today has been wonderful. Stress-free and filled with love,” shared one MyBCTeam member with their network. “Been hanging out with my parents all week. My surgery date was changed, but I’m ready for when the new date comes.”

2. Exercise

In addition to being a great anxiety-reducing technique, regular physical activity, such as yoga, can help you feel more in control of your body and reduce fatigue. Always check with your health care provider or oncologist before starting a new exercise routine.

3. Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness can also be a good technique for dealing with stress. A structured practice, like mindfulness meditation or mindfulness-based stress reduction, has been shown to temporarily improve sleep and reduce the feelings of anxiety and depression in women diagnosed with breast cancer. You can also practice mindfulness in your own way by taking a moment in your day-to-day life to slow down and note the environment around you.

One MyBCTeam member described their experience: “I am out enjoying the outdoors today. Chilly morning with coffee listening to all the sounds nature has to offer.”

4. Get Support From a Professional

Even if you’ve never considered it before, reaching out to a professional counselor for support can be a great way to help you reduce your stress levels. Having someone to guide you along on your journey can provide emotional support, help you feel less alone, and can take the onus of planning your stress reduction methods off of yourself.

Some people may benefit from one-on-one or group traditional psychotherapy, or talk therapy, while others may be more interested in cognitive behavioral therapy. These therapy approaches can help reduce fear and anxiety around metastatic breast cancer.

“I’m seeing a therapist— it’s hard!” one MyBCTeam member wrote. “Not to talk to the therapist, but to feel these feelings. Even with the help of medication, I still suffer. It’s so challenging.”

Being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer can be a life-altering experience, and it’s perfectly valid to feel anxious and stressed about how to move forward. Ask your oncology provider for recommendations for your mental and emotional health. They should have different resources and can refer you to mental health professionals who can help.

Learning and practicing techniques to keep your stress levels at bay may serve your health well, both emotionally and physically. Like your journey with metastatic breast cancer itself, your goal of stress reduction will also likely have its ups and downs, but taking care of your mental well-being is a worthy investment in the long run.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 67,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.

How have you handled stress during your metastatic breast cancer journey? Share your experiences in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Updated on January 18, 2024
    All updates must be accompanied by text or a picture.

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    Leonora Valdez, M.D. received her medical degree from the Autonomous University of Guadalajara before pursuing a fellowship in internal medicine and subsequently in medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute. Learn more about her here
    Anika Brahmbhatt is an undergraduate student at Boston University, where she is pursuing a dual degree in media science and psychology. Learn more about her here

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