Managing Stress

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2017

Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: Managing Stress, adapted from this content.

A disease such as cancer is often one of the most stressful experiences of a person's life. Coping with cancer can be more challenging with added stress from work, family, or financial concerns. Usual, everyday stress can also make coping with a cancer diagnosis more difficult.

Stress has not been shown to cause cancer. But chronic stress may weaken the immune system, causing other health problems and decreasing feelings of well-being.

Tips for reducing stress

“Stressors” are sources of stress. Some stressors are predictable and, therefore, sometimes avoidable. You can often lower the amount of stress in your life by making small changes. Consider the following tips for reducing stress:

  • Avoid scheduling conflicts. Use a day planner or your phone or online calendar to keep track of appointments and activities. When you schedule activities, allow plenty of time to finish 1 activity before starting the next. Don't schedule too many activities for the same day or week, especially activities you need to prepare for. If managing your schedule is exhausting, ask someone you trust to help review your appointments.

  • Be aware of your limits. If you don’t have the time, energy, or interest, it’s ok to politely decline when people ask you to take on tasks. And, don’t feel guilty over saying no. A cancer diagnosis is life-changing, and focusing on the things that matter most makes good sense. At work, don't volunteer for projects that would make your workload unmanageable. If saying “no” feels difficult, tell the person asking what you can do instead. This could be doing a smaller part of the task or having more time to complete the task.

  • Ask for help. It’s also good sense to ask family, friends, and coworkers for help. People are likely to offer their support, so think about particular tasks you need help with beforehand. People appreciate being able to help in specific ways. For example, family or friends may be able to help with shopping, meal preparations, pet-sitting, or picking up a child from school.

  • Prioritize your tasks. Make a list of the things you routinely do, such as work and household chores. Rank these things by importance, considering the things you must do and the things that are most important to you. If you don't have time to do everything, concentrate on the tasks and activities at the top of your list.

  • Break down tasks into smaller steps. Sometimes large tasks can be accomplished in smaller steps to take on 1 at a time. This process can make seemingly overwhelming problems easier to handle. For example, instead of spending an afternoon cleaning your entire house, tackle 1 or 2 rooms each day.

  • Concentrate your efforts on things you can control. A stressor may be something you cannot change or control, even with the best planning. Traffic is one example. People who can remain flexible keep their stress low. Sometimes the only aspect of a problem you can control is how you react to it. If it helps, think of it as saving your energy to spend on things more important to you.

  • Get help with financial problems. Talk with an oncology social worker or a financial advisor familiar with cancer-related insurance and financial matters. Do not wait to seek financial help. Late bills and debt can quickly become overwhelming. Learn more about managing the cost of cancer care.

Stress management strategies

Although you can try to reduce the number of stressors in your life, you can’t completely avoid stress. However, stress management strategies can help you feel more relaxed and less anxious. The following are tips to help reduce stress:

  • Exercise regularly. Moderate exercise such as a 30-minute walk several times a week can help lower stress. Talk with your doctor before starting an exercise schedule. Learn suggestions and tips for physical activity.

  • Spend time outside. If possible, take a walk outside in a park or other natural setting. Sunlight, fresh air, and the sounds of nature can help brighten a person’s day.

  • Schedule social activities. Make time to socialize with family or friends, as it is a good way to reduce stress.

  • Eat well. Maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough rest will give you more energy to deal with daily stressors. Learn more about nutrition during treatment.

  • Get plenty of sleep. Life is busy and some people may think that sleep is indulgent. But sleep is essential to help the body stay healthy and heal. Try to get 7 or more hours of sleep each night. Naps during the day can also help. If you are having difficulty sleeping, talk with your health care team about ways to manage sleeping problems.

  • Join a support group. Support groups offer you the chance to talk about your feelings and fears with others who share and understand your experiences. You can also talk with a trusted friend, a counselor, or a social worker. Learn more about support groups.

  • Schedule daily relaxing time. Spend time doing an activity you find relaxing, such as reading a book, gardening, or listening to music.

  • Do things you enjoy. Eat at your favorite restaurant, or watch your favorite television show. Laughter reduces stress; see a funny movie or read a humorous book.

  • Write in a journal. Writing about the stresses and events in your life provides a private way to express your feelings. Learn more about the power of writing.

  • Learn a new hobby. Engaging in a new and challenging activity gives you a sense of accomplishment and provides distraction from daily worries. Examples include taking an art class or playing a musical instrument.

Relaxation techniques

Many people learn and practice relaxation techniques to lower stress. You can learn most of them in a few sessions with a counselor. And, many hospitals and cancer centers have classes to teach patients relaxation techniques. You can do these techniques daily or at specific stressful times, such as during a medical procedure.

  • Relaxed or deep breathing. This technique involves deep, slow breathing while concentrating on filling the lungs and relaxing muscles.

  • Mental imagery or visualization. This helps you create peaceful and relaxing images in your mind.

  • Progressive muscle relaxation. This technique involves tightening and then relaxing muscles. Most people start at either the toes or the head and progressively relax all the muscles across the body.

  • Meditation. With this technique, you can learn to relax your mind and concentrate on an inner sense of calm.

  • Biofeedback. This technique can teach you to relax and control your body's response to stress by paying attention to signals from the body.

  • Yoga. Yoga focuses the mind on breathing and posture to promote relaxation and reduce fatigue.

Related Resource

Coping With Cancer

More Information

National Cancer Institute: Psychological Stress and Cancer