Can Stress Cause Cancer? | Dr Lise Alschuler & Ryan Sternagel

Lise Alschuler is a naturopathic doctor with board certification in naturopathic oncology. She is the co-author of a book I highly recommend called The Definitive Guide to Cancer. She co-created iTHRIVE, a cancer survivorship programme and co-hosts a radio show, Five To Thrive Live! on the Cancer Support Network. 

In 2008, Dr. Lise was diagnosed with breast cancer. She integrated natural supplements, diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes throughout her treatment and is 10 years cancer free! She now incorporates the learnings of her own, firsthand experience into her work to help others facing the challenges of this disease. 

***Resources Mentioned***

Dr Lise’s Website 

Dr Lise’s Book – The Definitive Guide to Cancer

Five to Thrive Live – radio show / podcast

iTHRIVE: Free survivorship programme

Cortisol Manager


Nature’s Way lavender product


In This Episode:

The topic of this podcast is one that’s particularly close to home for Teddy and I. When Teddy was pregnant with Ryder, she experienced immense amounts of stress from a negative work environment. We often wonder about the impact this stress had on our son and if it was responsible, at least in part, for his cancer. So it’s a topic I was really excited to explore, and there’s no one better to do this with than Dr. Lise Alschuler.

In this episode Dr. Lise explains the potential negative effects that stress can have on the body, including cancer progression and relapse, and what we can do to mitigate stress and anxiety in our lives.  

What led you to becoming a naturopathic doctor specializing in cancer?

  • Took an undergrad class at medical school. Many people diagnosed with cancer shared their journey 
  • Each person was unique, authentic, honest, courageous
  • Wanted to treat these kinds of people, so decided to get into oncology
  • Passion was in integrative medicine. Pulled out of medical school to study naturopathic medicine
  • Offered position at cancer hospital and discovered integrative oncology
  • Fascinated with the transformative element that a cancer diagnosis invokes in people
  • Dr. Lise’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Lived past his prognosis using integrative oncology
  • Two years later Dr. Lise was diagnosed with breast cancer and experienced integrative oncology firsthand
  • She felt healthy throughout conventional treatment despite side effects

Can you talk to the importance of mindset and effective stress mitigation strategies?

  • We often try to create linear relationship between cause and effect
  • Cancer is multifactorial – can’t appoint blame to any one thing
  • Take control of what we can. Modify our relationship to stress
  • Latest research shows correlation between high levels of stress and cancer progression or recurrence, rather than initial diagnosis
  • Cancer rates increase amongst individuals who have experienced significant stressors in their lives e.g. death of loved one or marriage break up
  • Cancer cells have been growing for 10-20 years before they get large enough to be identified as a tumor. Stress can accelerate what’s already present
  • Stress is just one factor behind tumor acceleration
  • All changeable through stress modification

What are you finding on the relationship between stress and prognosis?

  • Studies look at impact of the biomarkers of stress on cancer patient outcomes
  • Study on advanced breast cancer patients 
    • Divided study participants by their circadian rhythms – healthy circadian patterns indicative of a healthy stress response
    • Study showed women with flat circadian rhythms had chronic stress and died sooner – highly statistically significant. Had less immune function
    • Cortisol suppresses our natural killer cells and other essential bodily functions 
    • Similar results seen on studies of people with colon and lung cancer

The importance of social networks

  • Feeling socially isolated has a negative effect on prognosis
  • Not the quantity but the quality of connections with others

How do we know if it’s mental or external stressors behind the disruption of circadian rhythm as opposed to environmental influences e.g exposure to too much blue light?

  • Inflammatory cytokines are elevated throughout the body when there is a constant stress response
  • When stress mitigation strategies are implemented a positive change seen in circadian rhythms and inflammatory cytokines reduced
  • “Psychological wellbeing is like a firehose on inflammatory cytokines”

Note for parents of young children

  • Clear link between early childhood stress and adult susceptibility to cancer
  • An elevated stress response system becomes hardwired
  • Start stress modification techniques early e.g. meditation through guided imagery, creative play, good rest

How do you counsel people to get their mental well being under control?

  • Step back and look at the bigger picture – where is identifiable stress coming from?
  • What you change to bring more of yourself into the world in a positive way?
  • Other factors:
    • Sleep – enough, quality, hygiene, light exposure in the morning
    • Melatonin controls circadian rhythms and sleep. Often deficient in people with chronic disease

Aren’t there negative effects of supplementing something your body produces naturally?

  • Melatonin has a very short halflife. We don’t habituate to it
  • Melatonin has anti-cancer properties and is a potent antioxidant. Restores health of the pineal gland, reenabling melatonin production
  • In theory the body could develop resistance to melatonin. Long term users should take breaks and adjust dosage
  • Long-term use of any supplementation poses risks in terms of resistance
  • With kids, be conservative with anything in the hormone category

Back to stress mitigation strategies

  • Avoid sleep medication if you have cancer. Try a natural first
  • Regular, daily, vigorous exercise at the edge of your fitness
  • Exercise creates healthier circadian rhythms, fewer inflammatory cytokines, healthier immune systems, blood sugar control

What would say to someone going through conventional treatment where the last thing they feel like doing is exercise?

  • Still need to exercise but drop the intensity 
  • General rule of thumb: recovery time after exercise should be no more than half the exercise time when on treatment. If longer to recover then over doing it
    • If lost muscle mass tai chi, yoga, walking are better options
    • Rebounding 

What’s next after exercise?

  • Diet. Correlation between Mediterranean or anti inflammatory diet and lower stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines
  • Plant-led diet with no process foods – more resilience to stress 
  • Refined sugar is a stressor
  • Majority of diet should be plant-based
  • Too much meat is carcinogenic

Plants and herbal medicine

  • Two for one – manage stress and anti-cancer potential
  • Diverse gut microbiome – prebiotics, high fibre fermets
  • Lower anxiety and better stress response, immune function and response to conventional treatment
  • Adaptogens – plants that can reinstate circadian rhythm e.g. American Ginseng Ashwagandha, Holy Basil
  • Brands Dr Lise recommends: Gaia Herbs, Vital Nutrients (Verified Quality is their consumer brand), Pure Encapsulations, Integrative Therapeutics (product called Cortisol Manager) and Solaray
  • To reduce anxiety, Dr Lise recommends L-theanine (in particular, products containing Suntheanine) and lavender extract. Silexan is a lavender oil formula that is used in supplements. Dr Lise recommends a Nature’s Way product.

Mindfulness and meditation

  • Mindfulness starts with breathing. Exercises like the 4, 7, 8 breath
  • Great meditation apps. 10 minute guided meditations
  • Tai chi, yoga or qigong – moving meditation
  • Explore different types of meditation
    • Headspace and Calm apps are mindful meditation
    • There are other types e.g transcendental meditation and loving-kindness meditation

Follow Dr Lise

If you have a question or comment about this episode let us know below!!