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Can work stress increase your cancer risk?

A new study based in China and published in the International Journal of Cancer examined the link between work stress and the chance of developing cancer.

Cancer remains a top-ten leading cause of death worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Over recent decades, studies have identified important links between cancer and lifestyle that may help people to reduce their relative cancer risk. Research has established that work stress can adversely affect health in many ways. However, past studies looking at the link between job stress and cancer often failed to account for differences in lifestyle. Many of these differences, such as smoking and physical activity, could potentially muddle previous results.

Now, Yang and colleagues aim to address this concern to better understand the relationship between work stress and cancer risk in a recent report published in the International Journal of Cancer. This group performed a meta-analysis on published data from over 280,000 study participants curated from nine independent studies and controlled for lifestyle differences.

This new report examines the influence of work stress on cancer risk accounting for other factors in subjects including smoking, drinking, body mass index (BMI), and level of physical activity. This additional level of control generates associations that are less confounded, and therefore more interpretable.

North Americans and Europeans have different risks

This new analysis revealed significant associations between work stress and colorectal, esophageal, and lung cancers. Geographical location also seemed to have an impact on cancer risk in connection with job stress. An increased risk of colorectal cancer was observed in North America, but not Europe. Conversely, Europeans had a significant association between the risk of esophageal cancer and job stress that was not observed in North Americans. No connections were found between work stress and prostate, breast, or ovarian cancers.

One drawback of this report was the distribution of cancer types that were included. Many cancers, such as bladder, kidney, pancreas, and brain were only represented in one independent study, so any associations were not strongly validated. Furthermore, geographic locations outside of North America and Europe were not included in this analysis.

Results allow individuals to take preventative measures

Nonetheless, this important report has made strides to better understand the link between work stress and cancer risk. The strong associations observed in colorectal, esophageal, and lung cancers should be further explored in relation to job stress. Better understanding this link would allow doctors and patients alike to employ preventative measures to reduce cancer risk with targeted stress management.

Written by Stacey Aggarwal, PhD


  1. Yang T, Qiao Y, Xiang S, Li W, Gan Y, Chen Y. Work stress and the risk of cancer: A meta-analysis of observational studies. Int J Cancer. 2018 Nov 28.
  2. World Health Organization. “The top 10 causes of death.” Web. Published 24 May 2018. Accessed 17 Dec 2018. URL:
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