Although there is a strong correlation between breast cancer diagnosis and stress — particularly in the form of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — there is no demonstrable evidence to suggest a direct causal relationship between them, according to a study published in Breast Cancer – Targets and Therapy.

Patients with breast cancer exhibit high levels of stress, even more so than some other cancers. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) V recognizes that patients are able to develop PTSD as a result of receiving a diagnosis of a life-threatening disease, which has implications in the short and long term psychosocial well-being and treatment of these patients.

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This study aimed to identify the impact PTSD and stress has on cancer risk, as well as the risk factors for PTSD. The investigators reviewed literature from multiple databases between 2002 and 2016, searching for any studies pertinent to breast cancer and stress, PTSD, and breast cancer and PTSD. Only studies in which stress was the primary focus were selected.  

The analysis found that the incidence of PTSD among patients with breast cancer was 0% to 32.3%, varying depending on the stage of disease, disease phase, and which tools were used to measure the incidence. 

Study authors also looked for PTSD-associated risk factors. The variables that were associated with a higher prevalence of PTSD across the selected studies were previous cancer diagnosis in family history, younger age at diagnosis, and ethnicity of the patient, with higher rates in the Middle East.

The investigators conclude by saying, “even though a significant correlation was found between stressful life events and breast cancer incidence, an unequivocal implication of distress in breast cancer is hard to demonstrate.” 


1. Arnaboldi P, Riva S, Crico C, Pravettoni G. A systematic literature review exploring the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and the role played by stress and traumatic stress in breast cancer diagnosis and trajectory [published online July 6, 2017]. Breast Cancer – Targets and Therapy. doi: 10.2147./BCTT.S111101