Coping With Stress When You Have Cancer

Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO; 2015-2021 Cancer.Net Editor in Chief
April 24, 2018
Lidia Schapira, MD, FASCO

It should be no surprise that cancer treatment centers, hospitals, and outpatient clinics may sometimes feel like stressful environments. Stress is a frequent companion to cancer, and it needs to be acknowledged, even accepted. A cancer diagnosis affects a person’s relationships, productivity, and well-being. Medical appointments, treatment side effects, unforeseen costs, and worries about an uncertain future can create stress in the lives of people with cancer and of their caregivers. Knowing the physical signs of stress you experience can help one understand what’s caused a sore neck or a sleepless night, for instance, and take action to reduce or prevent these issues.

As an oncologist, I also know that we oncology clinicians are also under considerable stress from cancer. We feel responsible for providing excellent medical care, handling the emotional concerns of patients and families, staying up to date with progress in scientific knowledge, and allowing time for our own family, friends, or hobbies.

So it’s important for us all to find calm and inner stillness so we can maintain a healthy distance from the stress that cancer can cause.share on twitter It can be beneficial to just set aside a few minutes every hour to relax and enjoy a sense of calm. Try taking a few deep breaths that fill the chest and abdomen, closing your eyes, and relaxing your jaw muscles to step away from the sources of stress.

I find that walking is a very effective way of releasing stress, as well as other forms of exercise for those who are physically able to exercise. I often see people receiving cancer treatment doing “laps” around the hospital wards, pushing their IV pole. Some count their laps and can proudly announce how many miles they have walked over the course of their day in the hospital.

Physical activity can also help us sleep better. Feeling well rested is very important when you are facing the challenges of cancer. Getting enough sleep may even help you remain hopeful and confident during and after treatment. Try to avoid taking medications in the evening that can make you jittery. Leave your cell phone outside the bedroom and avoid bright screens that can be distracting during the night. Try listening to music that is soothing or to a relaxation or meditation recording when your mind is too busy and keeping sleep away.

Learning to recognize the physical signs of stress may help us take simple and easy steps to lessen its harmful impact on body and soul. This is important every day and for each one of us. Feeling calm and rested prepares us to handle difficult situations with greater confidence and resolve. It also gives us space to enjoy the lighter moments that help us recharge our batteries. As we think about what it takes to live through or with cancer, let’s not forget the value of learning to find stillness, to relax, and to breathe.


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