Cancer and Stress: Does It Make a Difference to the Patient When These Two Challenges Collide?

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A single head and neck Cancer (HNC) is a globally growing challenge associated with significant morbidity and mortality. The diagnosis itself can affect the patients profoundly let alone the complex and disfiguring treatment. The highly important functions of structures of the head and neck such as mastication, speech, aesthetics, identity and social interactions make a cancer diagnosis in this region even more psychologically traumatic. The emotional distress engendered as a result of functional and social disruption is certain to negatively affect health-related quality of life (HRQoL). The key biological responses to stressful events are moderated through the combined action of two systems, the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA) which releases glucocorticoids and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which releases catecholamines. In acute stress, these hormones help the body to regain homeostasis; however, in chronic stress their increased levels and activation of their receptors may aid in the progression of cancer. Despite ample evidence on the existence of stress in patients diagnosed with HNC, studies looking at the effect of stress on the progression of disease are scarce, compared to other cancers. This review summarises the challenges associated with HNC that make it stressful and describes how stress signalling aids in the progression of cancer. Growing evidence on the relationship between stress and HNC makes it paramount to focus future research towards a better understanding of stress and its effect on head and neck cancer.
Original languageEnglish
Article number163
Number of pages29
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jan 2021


  • Cancer
  • Glucocorticoid signalling
  • HNC
  • Stress
  • β-adrenergic signalling

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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