How Toxic Relationships Can Trigger Cancer

Mind and body are inseparable, especially when it comes to our relationships
BY James Templeton TIMEAugust 21, 2022 PRINT

We focus a lot on diet, therapies, and a wide range of alternative natural treatments for cancer, but one area that doesn’t often get the attention it deserves is the state of our relationships with those closest to us. But the data are in. Research proves that our social relationships directly influence our physical health—for better or for worse.

Toxic relationships, in particular, don’t just affect our self-esteem, but they can also kill us. The emotional carcinogens of a destructive relationship can be just as damaging as other, more commonly recognized causal factors.

Your Body Knows

It could be a relationship with a spouse, family member, or even your circle of friends that’s causing more harm than good—and your body responds accordingly. According to research conducted at UCLA’s School of Medicine, negative social interactions are linked to increased inflammation, a known root cause of a range of illnesses. The proinflammatory cytokine activity produced, specifically, cytokines IL-6 and TNF-a, which have been linked to heart disease, depression, diabetes, and some cancers.

In the above-mentioned study, researchers monitored a group of 122 healthy men and women, tracking the stressful events and emotions as portrayed in their diaries and comparing these incidents to the results of a cheek swab. Those participants who indicated stress-inducing negative situations just before the swab was taken had a higher number of the proteins produced by the body that create the conditions for an increased risk of disease.

Their findings indicated that those who are more socially integrated “live longer and are less likely to experience specific disease outcomes.”

Interestingly, it’s not only our current relationships that can be destructive, past childhood experiences may also play a factor in the development of disease. For example, researchers cited an early family environment that was “cold and conflict-ridden” as being tied to elevated levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in adulthood. CRP is a byproduct of IL-6 and a known diagnostic marker of cancer. Researchers defined this type of chronic relationship stress as being characterized by “conflict, mistrust, and instability.”

Change Can Be Healthy

Back when I had cancer (more than 35 years ago), I didn’t know the science behind toxic relationships. But I knew instinctively that I needed to be around positive people with a like mindset. And that’s exactly what I did. The time I spent at the Kushi Institute in New England took me out of my Texas comfort zone and propelled me into a new world full of hope and encouragement, teaching, and training. The relationships I made while there were life-changing. You can read more about it in Chapter 5 of my book, “I Used to Have Cancer.”

Let’s face it. Stress is inevitable. And sometimes we find ourselves in situations and relationships that aren’t helping us. When you’re facing a cancer diagnosis, it’s not selfish to disengage from those toxic relationships and surround yourself with positive, like-minded people. It just may be the impetus that changes your body’s chemical reactions, alleviating the chronic stress you may be under and elevating you to a more healthy reaction to the stressors life brings your way.


Jessica J. Chiang, Naomi I. Eisenberger, Teresa E. Seeman, and Shelley E. Taylor, “Negative and competitive social interactions are related to heightened proinflammatory cytokine activity,” PNAS Psychological and Cognitive Sciences (January 23, 2012); 109 (6) 1878-1882.

Lawrence A. Potempa, Ibraheem M. Rajab, Margaret E. Olson, and Peter C. Hart, “C-Reactive Protein and Cancer: Interpreting the Differential Bioactivities of Its Pentameric and Monomeric, Modified Isoforms,” Frontiers in Immunology (September 6, 2021); Sec. Inflammation.

L.F. Berkman, S.L. Syme, “Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: A nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents,” American Journal of Epidemiology (1979); 186-204.

James Templeton founded Uni Key Health Systems in 1992 and now the Templeton Wellness Foundation as a way of giving back and helping others achieve the health and wellness they are seeking.
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