A cancer diagnosis can introduce additional stress into daily life, for both patients and caregivers who must confront the changes and demands of a diagnosis and treatment. “Stress is a normal reaction in the body,” says Raed Rahman, DO, Medical Director of Pain Management and an Interventional Pain Medicine Physician at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois. And it is not always negative: “Usually, stress keeps us on our toes and helps us manage our time and skills, so temporary stress is okay,” Dr. Rahman says.
If one experiences stress over a long period of time, however, the physical and emotional impact can be harmful. “Chronic stress, or stress that lasts for weeks or months and doesn’t go away, has negative health effects,” says Dr. Rahman. These can include headaches, digestive symptoms, elevated blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, depression, anxiety and compromised immunity.
Another potential negative impact of chronic stress is a reliance on unhealthy coping behaviors. “Stress can lead people to excessive tobacco or alcohol use, drug use, unhealthy eating patterns and other negative lifestyle choices,” Dr. Rahman says. These behaviors can have long-term consequences on overall health, resulting in substance abuse, weight gain and impaired cardiovascular and respiratory health, among other outcomes.
Steve White, LCSW, Mind-Body Therapist at CTCA® in Goodyear, Arizona, helps patients and caregivers find effective strategies for managing stress. White says that there are many ways to relieve stress and that ultimately each person will need to find a method that suits his or her unique needs and personality. If you are feeling stress, consider the following tips and strategies to find a method that works for you.
- Do something you love. To find the best approach to stress relief for each patient or caregiver, White will often ask, “What brings you joy?” Whether it is fishing, reading, taking a hot bath, tinkering on a car or working in the yard or garden, White says, “Doing something that you love and that you get absorbed in allows you to lose track of time and stop thinking about your problems.”
- Breathe deeply. Dr. Rahman says even five to 10 minutes of focused breathing can help calm the body and the mind. He recommends the following basic technique: Find a quiet environment, close your eyes and breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. “Taking time to minimize stress and external stimuli in this way can lower blood pressure and heart rate,” he says. Combining deep breathing with visualization can also be very calming. White says he often encourages people to envision their “happy place” as they breathe, which provides additional escape and stress relief.
- Move your body. “Exercise is a good way of dealing with stress,” Dr. Rahman says. “It can help decrease depression and anxiety and will prompt your body to release endorphins—the ‘feel good’ chemicals—which can decrease stress.” Yoga, specifically, is a form of exercise that can be especially beneficial, as it combines physical movement with a focus on the breath. “Yoga stretches the body and relaxes the mind,” Dr. Rahman says. “The practice can help patients focus on the present and block out the stress in their life.”
- Talk about it. Whether you are most comfortable with the idea of one-on-one counseling, group therapy or speaking directly to another patient who understands what it is like to face cancer, talking about your concerns and your feelings can help relieve stress. Reach out to your care team to learn about therapy and counseling at your hospital or in the wider community.
- Laugh out loud. A good laugh can go a long way in relieving stress. Research has shown that laughter can reduce pain, decrease stress-related hormones and boost the immune system.1 White says he often asks patients, “What really makes you laugh?” Whether it is inspired by a favorite comedy movie, a pet or an entertaining grandchild, White says, the result of genuine laughter is the same: “When you laugh, your problems go away.”
- Get outside. The natural world can provide a welcome escape and a source of inspiration, allowing us to breathe fresh air, delight in the beauty of the world and gain calm and perspective. White says he loves to hear patients describe their favorite outdoor escapes: “People will tell me they really enjoy sitting on their back patio and looking at the yard or at the landscape around,” he says, “and that the time they spend outside is very relaxing.”
- Let the music move you. Whether your favorite tunes are classical, classic rock or spiritual hymns, listening to or singing music that speaks to your soul can provide stress relief. “Any music that moves you can be cathartic,” White says. “And it doesn’t need to be ‘Ode to Joy’—sometimes the best choice is something more melancholic. Whatever moves you can provide a healing emotional release.”
- Get some sleep. “Sleep is really important,” White says. “I always emphasize that people get a nap if possible to help relieve stress. Napping will energize you and make you feel better.”
- Tap into acupuncture. Very simply put, acupuncture is an ancient modality of Eastern medicine, wherein very fine, sterile needles are inserted at specific points on the body to stimulate the flow of energy. Harris Frank, Acupuncturist at CTCA in Newnan, Georgia, says, “Acupuncture has a direct and immediate effect on relaxing the mind and body.” Commonly used to treat such conditions as anxiety and depression, he says acupuncture “is also used to reduce physiological symptoms of stress, such as hypertension, tachycardia, dyspnea and nausea.”
- Seek medical care. All the nonmedical stress relief strategies listed here can be very effective. It is important to be aware, however, that in some cases the stress related to a cancer diagnosis may result in anxiety or depression that requires medical attention. For this reason it is always important to communicate with your care team about your emotional well-being and to be honest about how you are coping with stress. “Medications have their place if other things are not working to relieve anxiety or depression,” White says. And, he notes, anyone considering medication should share all information with his or her care team to avoid any potential drug interactions: “It’s important to make sure anything you take won’t interfere with your cancer treatment.”