Stress causes inflammation, dysregulation of the immune system, raises blood sugar, suppresses healing T cells and natural killer cells. But can it lead to cancer? Brandon LaGreca, author of “Cancer, Stress & Mindset,” tackles that question today. Brandon is a licensed acupuncturist who, in 2015, was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He achieved full remission eight months later without the use of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery.
Today he discusses how stress is often overlooked as a contributing factor, if not a driving force, that can indeed lead to cancer.
He covers what stress does to us biologically and psychologically, and he offers techniques for mitigating its effect, like vagus nerve activation, journaling, prioritizing sleep, and more. His very practical tips can help us all improve our mindset and build greater resilience, whatever the state of our general health.
Visit Brandon’s website: brandonlagreca.com
Register for our Wise Traditions conference: wisetraditions.org.
Listen to the podcast here
Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda.
Can Stress Lead To Cancer?
Stress causes inflammation and dysregulation of the immune system, raises blood sugar, and suppresses healing T cells and natural killer cells but can it lead to cancer? This is Episode 383. Our guest is Brandon LaGreca. Brandon is a licensed acupuncturist in the state of Wisconsin who in 2015 was diagnosed with stage four Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He achieved full remission within eight months by following an integrative medicine protocol that included immunotherapy without the use of chemotherapy radiation or surgery. Brandon discusses how stress is often overlooked as a contributing factor if not a driving force that can indeed lead to cancer.
Brandon discusses what stress does to us biologically and psychologically. He offers techniques for mitigating the effects of stress like vagus nerve activation, journaling, prioritizing sleep, and more. The objective of decreasing stress is to develop a healthier mindset and build greater resilience, which is beneficial for all of us whether we have been diagnosed with cancer or not. Before we get into the conversation, I want to let you know that Brandon, the guest on our show, will be at our Wise Traditions conference in October 2022 in Knoxville. Have you signed up yet? Please do. Go to WiseTraditions.org and register. It is the conference that nourishes in every way. I hope to see you there.
Welcome to the show, Brandon.
Thanks. It’s good to be back on your show.
This is a stressful time in our world’s history. I wanted to talk to you about this subject of stress, cancer, mindset, and also how we can manage stress whether or not we have gotten a diagnosis. Tell me the story of one of your patients who have struggled with migraines and how you found the relationship between migraines and stress.
It’s an interesting story. This was a gal that came to me who was having multiple migraines per week. That’s a pretty severe case. It was clear from my initial intake with her that the biggest stress in her life was work stress. It was such to the point that she was having headaches on Sunday night thinking about going back to work on Monday. The connection was clear. I was upfront with her, “I can treat you but that stress underlying is what’s going on here.”
I treated her. She got better. She was having certainly less frequent headaches and migraines. At some point, she got a new job. She moved to a different part of the state. We followed up with her three months later. I heard from her. She didn’t have another migraine again. She loved her new job and her new place. That was the last thing. It’s interesting. That connection was clear in her case.
I can see stress being in some relationship or a causal factor for migraines but I don’t understand how it could cause cancer. Can you talk to us about that a little bit?
We have to be clear here and split hairs. There are things that directly cause cancer. Those are carcinogens. There are things that promote cancer. In the book, I present all the evidence for how stress impacts our bodies. It does things like cause inflammation. It causes dysregulation of the immune system, raises blood sugar, and suppresses T cells and natural killer cells. We can look at all these different things but it’s certainly different to say, “Does that necessarily mean that it causes cancer?”
I don’t necessarily answer that question in the book. I leave it for people to make up their minds given the weight of the evidence. This is what I will tell you, having looked at this. I’m not utterly convinced that stress itself is a cause of cancer. There’s probably better evidence that trauma could be an underlying cause of cancer. Stress is most certainly a potent promoter of the cancer process once it has been initiated.
That’s not to say that because it’s not necessarily a carcinogen doesn’t mean it’s not impactful. If we get clear with this issue, we would say there are things that cause cancer that we can be exposed to through carcinogens but it doesn’t necessarily mean we are going to ultimately manifest into severe disease and die from that disease in the case of cancer. It may be that the little nest of cancer cells stays under the radar in our body for the rest of our lives and don’t necessarily succumb to it.
Curing is different from healing. It is the alleviation of symptoms of the disease process. Healing is being a fundamentally better person on the other side of that journey.
It’s important that the things that promote cancer such as diet, lifestyle, and stress are things that we address quite potently because without that, it’s possible that cancer incidents may not even go anywhere. From that perspective, think of this. What do a lot of people do to cope with stress in their life? They do things like smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. Those things are directly carcinogenic. You can even split hairs there that some of the habits that we do are destructive and carcinogenic because we’re trying to deal with stress in our lives.
Is it true that we all have dormant cancer cells?
Every single one of us in modern society is walking around with what we call precancerous cells. Those are cells that with the flip of a switch can probably become cancer at any given time given the mutations that occur in our body and all the things that we are exposed to.
That doesn’t mean we should live in fear because that would be stressful.
It’s one thing to recognize that cancer is always a potential but it’s another to understand if it’s an actuality for us. That’s where it comes down on the side of the terrain of the body and the health of the body. That’s true of cancer and any infectious disease like the pandemic we’re talking about. It’s true of auto-immune disease. We have to view practically everything we talk about through the lens of terrain. What is the overall health resilience of the body? How is that dovetailing into that disease process?
I love your approach. We all want to shore up the train of our bodies so it’s at its most healthy, and we don’t flip that switch to activate the precancerous cells and do something more dramatic and damaging to our health. Let’s talk about the stressors that promote that switch being flipped. What are the stressors that are most commonly seen?
The stress that I’m talking about mostly with folks is the ones that we are chronically exposed to. It’s chronic stress that goes in day in and day out. That’s different from maybe acute stress which could be a trauma. That doesn’t necessarily persist but that has a damaging effect on the body. We’re talking about the former as opposed to the latter. If everyone thinks about their life, there are a couple of areas where that comes up. One of them is home stress. That can be stress within your family. It could be with a spouse, children, parents, what have you, sisters, and brothers.
It could be work-related stress. It’s not a job that you like very much. Maybe there’s a boss that comes down on you hard. It could be global stress thinking about all the bad news that’s out there, doomscrolling, and all the ways that we interact with people around us. Social media can be great but it can also be damaging depending on what we’re tuned into. These are all ways that we are exposed day in and day out with little bits of stress that are adding little bits of water to our cup, and then it overflows. That’s when we succumb to more illness due to stress.
It was fascinating to me in your book when you said that people watching a horror movie, let’s say, experience it as if they were in this situation. It is a stressor of sorts. When you said doomscrolling, I was like, “That is a great term I had never heard before.” In other words, when we’re looking through all the social media posts, it could be a stressor on our emotions.
Our brain can’t decipher whether we are experiencing something visually but not being threatened as opposed to being threatened. Everyone has this experience. The story I told in the book was about my wife and me watching the movie Free Solo. There’s this great feat of this climber going up this wall without any ropes. This is a life-or-death situation. At some point, I reached my hand across to my wife during a gripping moment. Our palms were sweaty. I’m sure our hearts were beating a little bit faster.
We were locked into this stress response from what we were seeing on our television screen. Our brains were living that experience in some ways. We have to realize that there is perceived stress and how our bodies are interpreting that. The car in front of you hit the brakes, and I have to respond to the actual stress. To our brain, hypothalamus, and nervous system and how they’re all being interpreted, that stress response is being initiated either way.
Is it possible to have this flip the other way? I could be under a lot of stress physically or emotionally but not perceive it as such and handle it better.
We will talk about this later because there are different strategies that deal with stress. One of those strategies is called stress-proofing in which you deliberately put yourself in a little bit of a stressful situation to build up your resilience in the face of it.
That sounds like what I do when I get into a cold plunge tub. When I do cryotherapy, I’m stressing myself on purpose to build resilience, work on that positive mindset, and remind myself that I can be calm in the middle of a challenge. The stressors you mentioned earlier are at home, work, and these various areas. Once again, the car breaks down. We need the toilet repaired. I speak from personal experience here. Aren’t these a part of everyone’s life? How is it possible to avoid or lessen that level of stress? It’s going to be there.
Certainly, life presents us with unending challenges of things we have to deal with. There are some things that we can manage. For instance, if financial stress is something that you want to undergo, maybe you need to meet with a financial planner or work out a budget. There are some cases you can exert some will in this situation and other times, you can’t. For the situations where you cannot do that and remove yourself from the stressful situation, your only option is then to build resilience in the face of it.
In your book, you mentioned the anti-cancer mindset. Is that part of the resilience you’re talking about?
There are many elements to it but most fundamentally, it is delineating between a fixed mindset around your diagnosis and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset would be someone who hears the diagnosis that has been given to them of cancer and immediately plunge into victim consciousness, “How did this happen to me? I don’t want to deal with this. Let me turn myself over to the oncologist and do whatever they say.” That’s checking out in a way.
The opposite of that is someone who maybe after a short period of having that shock go through them quickly comes to a place of acceptance of their diagnosis and then, this is the most important part, becomes engaged in the process and realizes that they can also participate in their healing. I say that not because a mindset has some miraculous ability to heal us.
Just because we can cut out a tumor doesn’t mean we’re treating cancer.
What I would say is something much more common but much more important. Engaging in a healing mindset fundamentally changes the landscape of your healing process because if you are engaged in it, you are going to make fundamentally different choices than someone who is not. You are going to be thinking outside the box and looking for ways that you can accelerate your treatment. All those things packaged together are what make up this anti-cancer mindset.
It’s also an anti-victim mentality mindset, which we can all use in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in.
This is true of any disease and circumstance. There are people who melt in the face of that stress, or it motivates them. They become proactive, “What can I do about this?” Let’s be clear. The word cancer itself strikes fear in the hearts of many people. Having been on the cancer journey, I can certainly attest to that. Look at all the fears that are wrapped up with cancer. There’s the fear of our mortality that hits us right away, “Will this kill me or not?” That is about as potent as it gets.
There’s the fear of treatment. There are people who are simply afraid of going through conventional treatment. They know what that looks like. Everyone has this vision of an emaciated cancer patient. They’re afraid of that. They’re afraid of relapsing after they have gone through remission. There’s simply the fear of getting cancer itself even if you are completely healthy.
There’s a lot stacked against someone who gets that cancer diagnosis. That’s why it’s even more important to leverage that mindset piece as much as you can because you’re in it for the long haul. That’s one of my messages to people. If you’re a cancer patient, you’ve got to look at this as a lifestyle. This is a long-term journey for you. It doesn’t end after remission. You have to keep taking care of yourself in many ways beyond that.
That did pique my interest in your book when you said, “We should think of cancer as a journey.” I see what you’re saying. It’s not the diagnosis that determines your future but rather it is a part of your life. It doesn’t need to be the whole of your life.
One of the questions I always ask a cancer patient that’s sitting in front of me is, “How will this diagnosis make you a better person?” This is true of any disease but curing is different from healing. Curing is the alleviation of symptoms of the disease process. Healing is being a fundamentally better person on the other side of that journey. Why I asked that question is because I want to see if I can coax from a patient what their vision is for themselves going forward and how they can use cancer as a teacher to say, “These are all the ways perhaps that I’m out of balance in my life.”
“Maybe I haven’t been sleeping that well and eating very well. These are all the things that I can change about myself or maybe my relationship with people around me. How can I have a healthy relationship with my spouse and my kids, and bring healing holistically back to myself in all these different ways so that on the other side of this diagnosis, I’m a better person?”
The flip side of that is someone who like an automaton goes through the process, gets the treatment, hears the word remission, and then falls back all into the same destructive habits and lifestyle things they did before. Have they healed? No. Maybe they have cured temporarily that disease process in them but have they changed themselves fundamentally? No. Perhaps that was one wake-up call but then there’s the other one further down the line. It behooves us to look at healing in a much bigger picture sense.
I’m looking at your book. Did Nasha Winters write the foreword? She said something like, “What is cancer trying to heal in you?” That was a profound question.
I reflect often, too. Cancer is us. They’re our bodies’ cells that have gone rogue. They mutated in a way that now they’re growing out of control. We can’t blame this on something else. There are external factors and environmental exposures that can start the cancer process but we’re dealing with our body cells. We cannot externalize in the way that we can say, “Cut out that tumor. We’re done.” It is a whole-body disease from top to bottom. It is a systemic disease. Just because we can cut out a tumor doesn’t mean we’re treating cancer.
I want to pivot and talk about some of the active strategies that you mentioned in your book. There are a bunch of them. Let’s hit on a couple for reducing stress.
One of the most favorite that I’ve practiced for years now and always come back to is meditation. The reason why I like meditation is that it’s free as long as you learn how to do it. You can do it sitting in your car at a red light. You can do it in a concerted effort for 5, 10, 15, or 20 minutes a day. By doing so, you are making yourself more resilient by changing the set point for what you are exposed to and how you deal with it.
Meditation is one of those things that people who have practiced for long periods of time have the sense that it turns down the volume of all the stresses that we are being exposed to. One that’s related to that, which is also extremely helpful and I’ve found much easier to teach in some ways to patients is breathwork. It’s simple breathing and doing something as straightforward as lengthening your exhale so that it engages your vagus nerve. If you breathe in for 4 or 5 seconds, try to breathe out for 8 to 10 seconds that long, slow, and even exhale has a way that you can start feeling yourself slowing down and calming.
Another one that is potent is something like journaling particularly right before bed. People have a lot of things that they’re mulling over. It tends to bleed over into their sleep. They’re dreaming about all the things that they’re stressed about. One of the great strategies either on a computer or handwriting is to get a journal, take all those things, and get them out of your system. Write them out and process them so at least you’re not carrying them over into your sleep.
What happens apart from cancer that stress does to the body? What happens if we carry all these burdens without releasing them using any of the techniques you described?
There are several things. One of the most important that’s not talked about as much is that whenever you’re stressed chronically, the hormone that our bodies release to help deal with that is cortisol. Prolonged exposure to cortisol in our body tends to be catabolic to our guts. It’s inflammatory. It starts causing inflammation along our digestive tract.
As soon as you start getting disruption to the gut, pretty much everything else can follow. That’s the gateway to a lot of diseases. I’ve had patients over the years. I’ve got them on a good diet. We’re using some targeted supplements but until they do use strategies to cope with stress, their GI pain and problems don’t go away. It seems to be a particularly important factor for gut health.
Healing is a healthy form of mobilization.
Let’s talk about a couple of passive strategies.
That can be something as simple as getting enough sleep. We talk a lot about sleep hygiene in the sense that you want to be in a dark room that’s nice and cool. There’s not a lot of other distracting noise. To make sure you get nice deep quality of sleep alone is de-stressing for a lot of folks. Here’s one of my favorites. I’m biased because I’m an acupuncturist. I love acupuncture as a de-stress strategy. It has been amazing to us over the years how people claim, “I would never be able to relax having pins in me.” I walk into the room mid-treatment 3, 4, or 5 hours later but then they’re snoring away.
There’s something interesting about acupuncture, too. By sticking pins in the body, you can’t move around a whole lot. It’s teaching the body to be safe in an immobilized state. Think about that. Here’s one of the stress responses that we can have. When the sympathetic nervous system is initiated, there’s this either fight or flight phenomenon. We’re either going to be prepared to attack whatever is threatening us or run away from it but there’s a third option.
It’s fight, flight, or fright, which is the deer in headlights phenomenon. That’s an old evolutionary mechanism. If something is profoundly stressful, we might freeze. That immobilization locks itself into our bodies. In a therapy like acupuncture, someone has to lay still for 20 to 30 minutes that we have the pin in but the healing is a healthy form of mobilization. My sense is that has a way of rolling back the stress that would otherwise have immobilized us in a stress pattern.
Going back to what you were saying about sleep, I was reading Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep. He says, “Sleep is overnight emotional therapy.” There is some way in which our body or our brain is offloading all of the worries of the day. We’re setting them aside. It’s a beautiful gift to spend a third of our life in a state like the one you were describing also on the acupuncture table where we’re resting and not carrying the weight of the stress that we usually do.
I think about that a lot, specifically with dreams. Dreaming has a lot of functions ascribed to it but oftentimes we tend to problem-solve as we dream. We wake up with solutions to things. There’s a way that different parts of our being come to bear when we’re sleeping and dreaming. That does help mitigate a lot of the stresses that we’re encountering.
I do a lot of the things you’ve described. I try to make sleep a priority, nourish myself well, pray, and do things that help me but I don’t know if I can ever be stress-proof. Can I? Can anybody?
They’re probably very few. Stress-proofing is a strategy that you can employ to build your resilience. That happens by deliberately putting yourself in controlled stressful situations so that you can in a way become better adapted to the stress that you did not plan for. You mentioned one of them earlier, which is cold exposure or hypothermia. Cold plunges are one way certainly to do that.
The one way that I describe to patients and in my book is something as simple as a cold shower. Maybe you get cleaned up with a nice warm shower but towards the end of your shower, you turn it all the way to cold. This is a meditation of the highest order because as soon as that cold water hits your body, there is no place where your mind is. You’re not thinking about tomorrow’s shopping list or what happened earlier in the day. You are present at the moment as that cold water is hitting you.
Here’s where the real benefit happens. It’s not the fact that you are in this uncomfortable situation. It is getting your body comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. How you do that with a cold shower is by slowing your breathing because that’s the first thing that happens as soon as that cold water hits you, you practically hyperventilate. Your breathing becomes fast and erratic.
As soon as you make the choice, and this is so key because everything comes down to choice, to slow your breathing, you’re still in a painful situation but you’re now not eliciting a stress response. That’s exactly how it happens. It’s no different from being in a sauna, “This is getting uncomfortable. I’m going to slow my breathing and be present with the experience that I’m having.” That stress response got completely blunted. It’s nipping it in the bud as soon as it starts to come out.
I have enjoyed cryotherapy. The phrase you mentioned they say a lot is that we’re learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
That’s exactly the idea behind stress-proofing. It’s one more thing. They’re all important. Everyone should have active strategies that they use on a daily basis to decompress themselves from the day. It’s nice to have those passive strategies to piggyback off of that. The stress-proofing is there to build resilience over time so that when the unknown happens, and it happens for all of us, you might be a little bit better equipped. Be present at the moment, slow your breathing, and then be able to get through that with a little bit more grace.
I have a couple of more questions before we close up. How inevitable is it that a certain number of people in the population are going to get cancer? What are the percentages worldwide and in the US for the incidences of cancer nowadays?
The last I looked it was either 1 out of 3 or 1 out of 4 depending if you’re a man or a woman. In some cases, it’s predicted to be 1 out of 2 probably within our lifetime. More people died of cancer in 2021 than COVID. Well over half a million people died of cancer. It doesn’t seem like it’s slowing down anytime soon. This is one of these things that’s probably going to be the disease of our time. It’s going to overtake heart disease.
Frankly, even at this moment, who does not know somebody who has either been diagnosed or died from cancer, likely in your family, if not someone very close to you? With my cancer journey, this is something I take seriously. Part of what I want to get across to people is that this has to be a lifestyle. We have to understand this big picture. We have to think about all the things we’re exposed to and all the things that we have control over if we’re going to be able to deal with cancer in a holistic way.
That’s what your book is about. It’s not about necessarily preventing cancer or curing cancer as much as it is managing it as part of your journey.
That is so key. What came home to me was the realization after hearing the word remission in 2015. I’m years out. I won’t go back to life as I used to. It is a lifestyle. Furthermore, I don’t even like the word cancer survivor. That terminology does an injustice to the journey itself. I almost some ways prefer the term cancer patient. Even though I don’t want to overly identify with the diagnosis of cancer, I have to keep myself pretty razor sharp in my focus that the lifestyle changes that I have made that led to my remission are something that I keep doing long-term.
Stress-proofing is there to build resilience over time so that when the unknown happens, we can continue living with grace.
It’s not something that I forget about. It’s walking that razor’s edge and realizing that once you’re on this path, you use it as a teacher to guide you and as a positive influence in your life to change you and to keep those changes going so you don’t get lazy and fall back into old habits. That’s where if you do use cancer as a teacher, it can be a profound teacher and keep you healthy for the rest of your life.
I was thinking maybe you could think of yourself as a cancer class student or something and use it as a tool for growth and developing a healthier lifestyle. We’re going to wrap it up now. I’m so grateful for this conversation. These tools are going to be valuable for people, whether or not they have had that diagnosis, and maybe to support those who have for lowering the stress. I imagine everyone who’s around a person who has been diagnosed feels the stress and the burden of that as well.
Specifically, I mentioned in the introduction of the book that caregivers and people who are working in the field in terms of oncologists or naturopathic oncologists can all benefit from this information in terms of all having the proper mindset going into it and then through the process.
I want to ask you now the question I often pose at the end. If the reader could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
I have to give a different answer since I’ve been on your show. Isn’t the correct answer to tune in to Holistic Hilda every week?
What’s the second most important thing?
I’m going to come back to meditation. It has been deeply profound in my life. One of the reasons why is we can talk day in and day out about all the different things we can do to improve our health but at the end of the day, one of my missions as a clinician is to empower people to take health into their hands. Part of what enables that to happen is to figure out for yourself what you need to do.
By that, there are a lot of options that anyone can do at any moment to heal from whatever stresses and things they’re encountering and to get into a clear, intuitive space, “I’ve got options A, B, C, and D but I feel most strongly about A. This is something that I realize is going to be the main driver of my health and wellness.” You can’t get that from any clinician or provider.
That’s something that has to come from inside of you. To get into an intuitive space and say, “These are all the things that are going on in my life. These are all things I can do. I need to move in this direction. I feel so strongly and get 100% behind that,” that clarity is something that can come out of meditation and having an introspective practice. When I teach people about being self-empowered in their healing journey, meditation is a fantastic avenue to get there.
Thank you for sharing that, Brandon. I appreciate your time.
Thank you. It’s always a pleasure.
Our guest was Brandon LaGreca. Find out more about Brandon and his resources on his website, BrandonLaGreca.com. For a Letter to the Editor from a journal, “I teach kindergarten in Colorado. Once in a while, I use a website called GoNoodle to get kids active and moving in a fun way for indoor recess on cold days or brain breaks. I always preview videos beforehand. I came across one that is a commercial aimed at kids for 5G. “
” Did you know the ad says that with Verizon 5G, you can do anything you can imagine? I couldn’t believe it. I felt sick. I wanted to pass this on for awareness. Simply go to App.GoNoodle.com, search Totally Terrific Fitness Fantasy, and go to minute five. I am so grateful for all the information you make available. It has changed our lives. I plan to share it with as many families as possible, including info about 5G.”
This is a letter from Laurie from Eaton, Colorado. Laurie, thank you so much for your letter. It is important to pay attention to what we take in as part of our diet, not just the food that we put into our bodies but the things we put into our minds and our children’s minds as well. Thank you. You can also write us a Letter to the Editor by simply writing by email to Info@WestonAPrice.org. Put Letter to the Editor in the subject line. Thank you so much for reading. Stay well, my friend. Remember that all shall be well. All manner of things shall be well.
About Brandon LaGreca
Brandon LaGreca, LAc, MAcOM, is a licensed acupuncturist in the state of Wisconsin and nationally certified in the practice of Oriental medicine. In 2015, Brandon was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He achieved full remission eight months later by following an integrative medicine protocol that included immunotherapy without the use of chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. Brandon is a leader in the synthesis of traditional and functional medicine, having written numerous articles on the subject. He is also the author of “Cancer and EMF Radiation: How to Protect Yourself From the Silent Carcinogen of Electropollution” and “Cancer, Stress & Mindset: Focusing the Mind to Empower Healing and Resilience”. He shares his thoughts on his website at https://brandonlagreca.com/
- Branch Basics
- Optimal Carnivore
- Why We Sleep