The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics

Does stress cause leukemia? A skeptic asks two experts

Hello all!

It’s been awhile since we’ve done a good skeptical debunking—most of our articles lately have been counter-apologetics and so on, so I thought it was time for a change of pace! Enjoy.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook:

Did you guys know that stress can lead to leukemia?

As it happens, my parents are both hematologists/oncologists & cancer researchers. FYI, leukemia is cancer of the bone-marrow stem cells.

I responded:

Is this like in the way drinking water can lead to leukemia? 😉 I’d love to see some peer-reviewed research if not!

She responded:

There is peer-reviewed research.. but it’s like connecting the dots. I had my blood levels checked a few months back and saw that I had high MPVs [editor’s note: mean platelet volume] from stress. Then, I went on to learn about large blood platelets which have an average life span is 5-9 days. So if the stress were to continue consistently for long enough, leukemia could develop. I did so much digging only to realize that I needed to find a way to chill out, asap. The stress was from neuro-lyme.

I was skeptical of my friend’s claim that stress can lead to leukemia, especially since it seems to be based on anecdotal evidence, and so I asked for my parents’ opinions. They are both Ivy-League trained, practicing clinicians with medical degrees. My father has authored about 16 research papers in proper peer-reviewed academic journals, and my mother about 5. Between them, they have over 60 years of experience treating and researching cancer, and are both Fellows of the American College of Physicians. For their full credentials and CVs, please visit and

My father and mother (left and second-from-left) with two other doctors at a 2006 American College of Physicians conference

My father and mother (left and second-from-left) with two other doctors at a 2006 American College of Physicians conference

I called my father and asked if stress can cause leukemia. He said:

Nope. Of all the diseases where I think it couldn’t be related, that would be it.

My mother asked if she could supply me with a written response, so I’m just copying & pasting what she wrote. Here’s what she had to say:

Where do I begin? Normally, platelets live 10 days, and are big, juicy, sticky platelets when they “hatch”, and come into the bloodstream, from the marrow. As they age, they put lots of “fingers in the dike,” and the resultant platelets are smaller. If the MPV, mean plt volume, is big, it means that platelet turnover is increased, suggesting a shortened plt survival, less than 10 days. The most common cause of this is “ITP”, which means idiopathic (now autoimmune), thrombocytopenic purpura, where a person has antibodies against the platelets. This is an autoimmune problem, where the person, for unknown reasons, makes these antibodies, that attack the platelet membrane, and alert the spleen that there’s something wrong with the platelets. The spleen then does it’s assembly-line job of removing these abnl platelets from the circulation, destroying them in the spleen. Hence, the shortened platelet survival time, and the new baby plts, made, maybe 10-100 times the nl rate, are big. They work really well, and people who have this disease don’t have as much bleeding as one’d think, as the plts are extra big and sticky. 

If someone has low platelets from decreased production, rather than increased destruction, as in aplastic anemia, or leukemia, where, in the former, the marrow is pretty empty – no seeds in the garden, so no platelets will be made and released to the circulating blood. This usually occurs with red cells (anemia), and white cells, (no white cells to fight infection, phagocytize bacteria and then engulf bacteria, killing them). People with leukemia don’t have empty marrows, but their marrows are overrun with infant marrow cells, that don’t mature into normal red, white cells or plts, but stay as infant cells, almost always the white cells, neutrophils, and the marrow gets tons of these useless infant cells, called blasts, or myeloblasts, that take up all the room in the marrow, so there is no room for normal clones of cells to do what the body needs – normal red, white cells and plts.

Those people with AA or leukemia, have decreased production of plts, and their MPVs are NOT increased – they’re not making much of anything. They have terrible problems with bleeding, infection, anemia, often need transfusions of red cells and platelets, need to be in the hospital as they’re totally vulnerable to get infections w/o having good, mature white cells. The MPV is a result of not making many plts, and is the effect of decreased production. It is not the CAUSE of anything, but the result of not making new platelets very quickly.

The MPV is not a cause of leukemia at all. It is an effect of not making lots of platelets, as baby plts are big. True, true and unrelated. [emphasis added]

Leukemia is formed when an abnormal clone of white cells gets a directive to grow faster than the normal clones, so the bad clones overrun the good marrow cells.

I added to my friend that I’d be happy to pass along citation numbers for any papers she finds that show a causative link between stress & leukemia, if she’d like my parents to give them a look and respond to them. If that happens, I’ll post their responses on the blog as well.

I’m not saying I agree nor disagree with my parents; I have zero knowledge of this subject. However, my parents do have knowledge of it—expert knowledge of it—and I think it makes sense to trust the experts until or unless a convincing body of good evidence is presented that indicates they’re wrong. That’s really how we should approach all claims like this, if you ask me. Experts can be wrong sometimes, sure. But we go with the best information we have, and trusting people who know more than you do is necessary for making our way in this world.

I think it’s irresponsible to post things like “Did you know…?” as though this is an absolute fact, if this is not the consensus view of professionals. In this particular case, it happens to be physically impossible as well, given the actual mechanisms of leukemia.

Have a great Friday, everyone!


dave_bio_pic4Dave Muscato is an atheism activist, blogger, and public speaker. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday; twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard, and monthly or more on His website is

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About Danielle Muscato

Danielle Muscato is a civil rights activist, writer, and public speaker. She has appeared on or been quoted in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard Magazine, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, "The Real Story" with Gretchen Carlson, The O'Reilly Factor, Huffington Post Live, Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Raw Story, CNN, CBS, and Howard Stern Danielle is the former Director of Public Relations for American Atheists. She is also a board member of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists & Agnostics). Her website is Follow her on Google+ Follow her on Twitter @daniellemuscato Subscribe to her on YouTube at

2 comments on “Does stress cause leukemia? A skeptic asks two experts

    May 7, 2013

    Normally, basic use includes ample characteristics to maintain associated with membership database.

    • Amanda Blanquita
      July 17, 2013

      Hi Dave

      My name is Amanda. I came across this as Im doing so much research on this subject as well. I find it so awesome that both of your parents are Hematologists. I have found myself in a bit of a health crisis, and was wondering if you or your parents could give input.

      I recently went to the Dr because Ive not been feeling well for awhile now. I started having bone pain about six months ago, didnt give it much thought. Then the end of March I started loosing weight for no known reason. Ive lost a total of 11 pounds since the end of March while consuming a healthy 1500 to sometimes even close to 3000 calories a day. I actually have to force in the calories through bad foods like candy, soda, chips, anything that I can consume in high calorie. I cant eat alot fo food at one time because I get REALLY full sooo fast. So I decided to go to the dr because all of a sudden I became very tired all the time, short of breath really bad, some night sweats and high body temperature, and headaches.

      So the Dr did a CBC and a metabolic panel, and also checked my thyroid. The only thing that came back was a high MVP at that time. It was 12.9. My clinics range is 6.7 to 10.8 FL. So i went through prior lab work going back to over a year. I noticed that all of them reported a consistant MPV value of 8.8 to 9. I should also add that my platelet count is normal. So I waited 10 days and had her run a CBC again and addition to that a Vitamin B12 and Vitamin K check, and morphology smear. My MPV then came back at 13.2, platelet count went down a little but still normal at 205. Vitamin B12 was 1150, which is 200 points higher than normal. My Vitamin K is extremely low at 0.04. My RBC morphology was normal, but platelet morphology was ABNORMAL. It showed many large platelets. I had a vitamin K level checked many times last year and all of them were normal, so this is a new finding. My album is 4.7 and Total Bilirubin is 0.4. So my liver is fine.

      Im seeing a hematologist soon, but would love the input from others on this. Ive talked to many Drs including a Hematologist from Cuba. Ive been told this looks like it could be the begining of a certain type of Leukemia, myeloproliferative dieases, bone marrow disease, or some kind of Pre-Leukemia.


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This entry was posted on February 22, 2013 by in Author: Dave Muscato, Science, Skepticism and tagged , , , , , , , .
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