Cancer stem cells

Last night I was flipping through an older book on cancer that I’d sent to my mother in 1997 when she’d been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer – it had spread to her bones and I was combing all the book shops (no Internet then!) to find anything and everything I could to help her.

The book I sent was “Heal Cancer: Choose Your Own Survival Path” [1] by Dr Ruth Cilento, and reading it back in 1997 was the first time I’d come across the idea of “stressed cells”, but even in 1997 it was not a new idea. Cell biologists have long known that if cells are stressed, this can lead to cancerous changes.

Considering the fact that there are over 37 trillion cells in the human body, all stemming from that one single cell that heralded your conception, it’s all a bit mind-boggling, really. But what are stressed cells, and how do we avoid that situation?

Stressed cells have lost the minerals, vitamins and nutrients they require to protect them and their electrical charge. They may have been invaded by toxic substances which have leaked through their damaged membranes and this depletes their ability to do what they need to do, and it alters the programming of the cell.

There are many things that can cause stressed cells – mental stress (more on that below), bad nutrition, smoking cigarettes, drug use, hormone imbalances, radiation, extremes in temperature, repeated trauma, environmental pollution, chemical toxins, invasion by viruses, fungi or germs – the list is long.

As a breast cancer coach, however, one of the things that women tell me most frequently is that in the lead-up to their breast cancer diagnosis they were under a lot of chronic (long term) mental stress. It was the same for me, and it’s obvious that mental stress equals stressed cells. We are, after all, a unity of body and mind. What happens to one happens to the other.

But I wanted to understand the mechanism by which this happens. What’s going on in our physiology when we’re under stress?

Why Chronic Stress is a Factor in Cancer

A new 2019 study [2] on mice with breast cancer has recently uncovered what just might be the answer to that question, and it’s the first study to do so. Apparently chronic stress can accelerate the growth of cancer stem cells. This is important because you can kill the tumor, but if you haven’t also dealt with the stem cells, the cancer can regrow. And guess what? Radiation and many forms of chemotherapy don’t kill cancer stem cells, in many cases they spur their growth. [3]

We already know that chronic stress can lead to a higher risk for heart problems, poor gut health and even cognitive impairment. But what exactly is going on in the body that causes stress to fuel the growth of cancer stem cells?

The 2019 study [2] had researchers looking deeply into how physiological factors changed in the mice that experienced chronic stress. They found that the hormone epinephrine (aka adrenaline) was at the center of it all. The stressed mice had much higher levels of epinephrine than the mice not experiencing the stress. So they gave the stressed mice a drug that blocked epinephrine, and that resulted in their cancer tumors shrinking, and they had fewer cancer stem cells.

Cortisol Has a Part to Play, But …

In the past, we believed that it was cortisol in stressed people that was suppressing the immune system and causing stressed cells and cancer. And cortisol certainly plays a part in all of this. But apparently cortisol isn’t the only factor – epinephrine actually assists cancer stem cells to thrive and the mechanism by which this happens is interesting. The 2019 researchers [2] found that when epinephrine binds to ADRB2, a cell receptor that interacts with epinephrine, the interaction boosts an enzyme known as lactate dehydrogenase. This enzyme acts to increase energy to muscles in situations of danger (which triggers the release of epinephrine), thus allowing the person to either fight a threat or to flee from it. When this occurs, a compound known as lactate is produced. If there is active cancer present in the body, tumor cells feed on lactate to acquire more energy for themselves.

The researchers from the 2019 study [2] then validated their findings by studying the epinephrine levels of 83 breast cancer patients. They found that those who had high blood levels of epinephrine also had high levels of lactate dehydrogenase in their tumors (they had access to the tumors through breast biopsy samples). They also found that those who had higher levels of epinephrine had poorer outcomes after treatment when compared with patients who had lower levels of epinephrine.

Help for Stressed Cells

Fortunately, the researchers in this study also looked at strategies which would block the ill effects of epinephrine. In cell studies with human breast cancer cells, they analyzed the effects of a few approved drugs on the production of lactate dehydrogenase. The most promising substance wasn’t a drug, however – it was good old plain vitamin C! Touted for YEARS in natural health circles as being a potent anti-cancer weapon, vitamin C blocks lactate dehydrogenase in cell studies and in mice. It makes tumors shrink.

There are a few other things that will help stressed cells, besides vitamin C. Here are some of the best:

Flaxseed oil – An important essential fatty acid, flaxseed oil helps by creating healthy cell membranes. It also starts the conversion of oxygen to energy for every cell. When we breathe in oxygen, essential fatty acids in cell membranes attract, capture and transport oxygen into, and carbon dioxide out of, the body. Essential fatty acids also carry oxygen through red blood cell walls and help to combine with iron-containing “heme” to form hemoglobin, the main oxygen-carrying molecule in our blood. For more information on the importance of consuming healthy essential fatty acids like flaxseed oil, read the writings of Udo Erasmus and Johanna Budwig.

Juicing organic vegetables, greens and fruits – Consuming the juice of organic produce provides instant nutrition to the cells of our body, without requiring much energy for digestion. Juicing provides us with loads of cell-protective antioxidants like vitamin C, beta-carotene, vitamin E, and hundreds of anti-cancer phytochemicals that are immediately available for the body to deliver to our cells. It’s one of the best things you can do to feed stressed cells and deliver natural anti-tumor phytochemicals right where they’re needed.

Meditation – Because it’s obvious that chronic stress leads to cancer – and promotes the growth of cancer stem cells – dealing with it effectively becomes critical. That’s where meditation comes in. Meditation has been shown in a number of studies to help reduce stress. A 2000 study [4] found that meditation significantly eased stress, anxiety, depression, negative thoughts, and anger in cancer patients. A 2005 study [5] found that meditation reduced stress and anxiety for nurses working in a high-pressure environment. A 2014 study [6] found that meditation decreased depression and stress in family caregivers of people with dementia. Apparently, the longer we meditate, the better the outcome – so if at first you don’t notice a benefit, stick with it. A 2019 study [7] found that long-term meditators recovered from stress more quickly, experienced more positive emotions after being exposed to stress, and adapted better to stressful situations than did non-meditators. Meditation is easy to learn (I can teach you!) – the hardest thing about it is taking the time to actually sit still and do it.

Feed Your Adrenals – Epinephrine/adrenaline is produced in the adrenal glands and chronic stress can lead to adrenal burnout = stressed cells. There are a number of herbs that feed the adrenals, including ashwagandha, rhodiola rosea, holy basil (aka tulsi), licorice root, and Siberian ginseng. Please work with a qualified naturopath or herbalist when using herbs to improve your health.

There are many other strategies that will help to avoid stressed cells. Avoiding smoking cigarettes, drug use, extremes in temperature (when possible!), environmental pollution, and chemical pollutants are all wise. If you’d like my help with some of this, use the Contact form above and put “Coaching” in the subject line. It’s my honor to help you through this stage of your life.


[1] Heal Cancer: Choose Your Own Survival Path, Dr Ruth Cilento, Hill of Content Publishing Co Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Australia, 1993

[2] Stress-induced Epinephrine Enhances Lactate Dehydrogenase a and Promotes Breast Cancer Stem-like Cells –

[3] Article: Common Cancer Treatments May Create Dangerous Cancer Stem Cells –

[4] A Randomized, Wait-List Controlled Clinical Trial: The Effect of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Program on Mood and Symptoms of Stress in Cancer Outpatients –,Wait_List_Controlled_Clinical_Trial.4.aspx

[5] Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Health Care Professionals: Results From a Randomized Trial –

[6] Meditation-based Interventions for Family Caregivers of People with Dementia: a Review of the Empirical Literature –

[7] Exploration of Psychological Mechanisms of the Reduced Stress Response in Long-term Meditation Practitioners –

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