, Volume 58, Issue 1, pp 3-11
Date: 16 May 2012

The embodiment of adverse childhood experiences and cancer development: potential biological mechanisms and pathways across the life course

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To explore current evidence of the physiological embedding of stress to discuss whether adverse childhood experiences (ACE) causing chronic or acute stress responses may alter fundamental biological functions.


A non-systematic review of the literature was carried out using keyword searches in Pubmed and the web of science from May to October 2011. In reference to the literature identified, we examine the potential biological pathways potentially linking exposure to ACE and cancer development and progression in adulthood.


These mechanisms, in interaction with social position, and mediated by subsequent environmental exposures, may ultimately lead to the development of cancer. The experience of acute or chronic stressors during sensitive periods of childhood development which can induce several known biological responses, are likely to have an impact on subsequent biological and behavioural functions depending on the timing of initial exposures, and subsequently mediated by later exposures. For this reason, childhood exposure to adversity is a likely source of both acute and chronic stressors, and can be examined as an important initial exposure on a pathway towards adult ill health.


Such pathways justify a life course approach to understanding cancer aetiology, which may have its origins early in life.