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Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Cancer

Studies have shown that ACEs can increase risk for a number of adult diseases.

Key points

  • October is Emotional Wellness Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
  • Adverse childhood experiences can increase risk for a number of illnesses in adulthood.
  • Consistent stressors on the part of the parent can affect the growing child.

October is Emotional Wellness Month, and it’s also Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Many factors come into play in the discussion between emotional wellness and cancer. While it would be presumptuous and harmful to presume that an early, challenging parent–child relationship could result in cancer later in life, there’s evidence that stressors encountered in childhood may contribute to health challenges at a later date.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic experiences encountered before the age of 18. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2023), we know these experiences can include neglect, violence, or abuse; witnessing violence in the home or community; and having a family member attempt or die by suicide. Astonishingly, approximately 64 percent of adults in the United States have reported at least one ACE. What essentially occurs is that the stressor activates or triggers a surge in the stress hormone cortisol. Studies have shown that over a period of time, this results in brain changes that may result in a higher risk for diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, and the incidence of cancer.

ACEs have been researched for decades. In 2002, a study conducted by Vincent Felitti, MD, found that ACEs are “vastly more common than recognized and acknowledged.” The study highlighted the powerful correlation to health as much as 50 years later. Depression, for example, was common in this group. In fact, the incidence of depression was 46 percent more likely than for those who were unexposed to ACEs. Studies also show that children of Holocaust survivors have been affected by the stressors their parents encountered. In other words, children wind up bearing the burden of their parents' legacy.

Nadine Burke Harris, MD, a pediatrician, crusader, founder of Center for Youth Wellness, and former Surgeon General of California (2019–2022), has spearheaded a movement to trace ACEs and the onset of mental illness. She was inspired by the notion that when a child is exposed to adverse conditions—whether it’s emotional neglect, an absent parent, mental illness, drugs and alcohol, or other challenges—their brain undergoes biochemical changes if cortisol levels have been high for extended periods of time. This can increase a child's chance of having physical and mental manifestations later in life. In her book, The Deepest Well, Dr. Harris writes, “Having an ACE score of two or more doubles someone’s likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease.”

Healing From Trauma

As with any past trauma, some healing is possible, but it can be challenging. If the adult survivor is able to maintain healthy relationships, then their outcome is more often than not successful.

During early childhood, parents are the ones who are typically in control of their children’s stress system. The longer the child is exposed to stress, the more likely it becomes that their mental health will be affected as adults. In addition, if parents experienced significant stressors, it can affect their children. One woman I spoke to said that her father was always depressed. As a child, she interpreted her father's depression as her inability to make him proud or please him, when in fact he was harboring heavy emotions and was unable to control his own grief experience. There’s an ongoing question of whether resiliency is born or made, and, no doubt, more research needs to be done in this area.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, June 29). Fast facts: Preventing adverse childhood experiences.

Felitti, V. J. (2002). The relation between adverse childhood experiences and adult health: Turning gold into lead. The Permanente Journal, 6(1).

Nadine Burke Harris, MD. (2018). The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity (1st ed.). Mariner Books.

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