How to Manage Cancer-Related Stress
Treating cancer is stressful—mentally, physically, and spiritually—and managing stress can have a positive impact on your quality of life and even your recovery outcomes. To gird yourself for the substantial challenge ahead, consider incorporating some stress-management strategies in advance of treatment, so that you’ll already have self-care practices in place that will feel familiar and comfortable as you embark on your treatment.
Meditation in any form is a phenomenal way to fight stress—it’s free, it has no detrimental side effects, and you can do it anywhere. It can be challenging at first—it’s unlikely you’ll reach any kind of monklike state on your first try, or even your first several. But the benefits make keeping it up ultimately rewarding. As soon as you begin to meditate, the waves in your brain shift, with activity-and-stress-oriented beta waves decreasing and relaxation-oriented alpha and theta waves increasing. Plus, over time, a meditation practice is also associated with lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The idea of reaching a Zen-like state when life is feeling unraveled can be intimidating, though—and if you don’t have any meditation experience, you may be wondering how, exactly, to do it.
Apps like Calm, Headspace (both $70 annually), 10% Happier ($99 annually), and Insight Timer (free) are excellent and highly accessible guides to starting a practice, and you can download them straight to your smartphone. For more intense and interactive guidance, one-on-one training in Transcendental Meditation is available in many cities worldwide. TM is a personalized, evidence-based practice that is taught in a 4-day course, and many practitioners find it life-altering. The beauty of meditation, however, is that you don’t actually need any guidance or gear to begin: you can simply find a quiet space (or some quiet within yourself), close your eyes, and focus on your breath.
Breathe and Relax
Self-administered relaxation techniques like breathwork and Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) bridge the imaginary gap between mind and body, and can have a profound effect on your physical and mental states. There are myriad styles and schools of breathwork, so consider going on an individual adventure to find and try out different techniques. Box breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, and the Wim Hof Method are great practices to check out. For some approaches you can take with you, Breathing Zone ($3.99) is an easy app that lets you pace your breathing to a slowly expanding and contracting circle; you can also opt for a guided breath session—all under 5 minutes. Breathe2Relax (free) syncs with your Apple Watch, Fitbit, etc. and offers a variety of approaches and techniques.
To start PMR, first do a body scan. (Trying this in bed right before falling asleep or upon awakening works really well, and once you’re more familiar, you can experiment with doing it throughout your day.) Close your eyes. Tense and relax the muscles in each part of your body, starting with your feet and moving slowly up to the crown of your head and then down into your arms and fingers. You want to move through your body slowly, without rushing any parts, keeping your focus confined to one body part at a time. When your mind wanders—that’s when, not if; you’re only human, after all—just redirect it back to the body part you are tensing and relaxing. Throughout the body scan, breathe naturally but deliberately, using the breath as your body’s metronome.
Therapy can be super helpful as you move through your treatment. (And beyond it. Many patients report that the weeks and months directly following treatment can be surprisingly challenging, as they have more time to process emotions.) Having a dedicated space where you can talk about your experience without feeling concern about burdening or worrying friends and loved ones can be a huge relief for some people, and a talented therapist can also help you employ coping and thinking strategies that can substantially improve your treatment and recovery experience.
When your life is already overflowing with appointments (treatment visits, meetings with your oncologist, lab work, etc), however, having one more thing to schedule and travel to can sometimes feel overwhelming. Talkspace splits the difference, offering virtual counseling sessions with licensed therapists via text and video chat. Once you’re assessed and matched with a therapist, you can choose a plan that fits your needs (pricing starts at $65 weekly). Some plans offer unlimited texting, and live sessions are available if and when you need them.
It’s also important to recognize that sometimes stress can become so intense that things start to feel hopeless. You’re dealing with a lot, and this is understandable. The Crisis Text Line allows you to text 741741 to talk to a trained Crisis Counselor right away via text message, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (call 988) helps you connect with someone by voice.
Treatment is a time to really lean on your community and to push yourself to ask for help and connection, even when doing so is challenging. Your friends and loved ones want to show up for you, and their support can have profound and long-lasting positive effects. If you’re someone who’s used to being the caregiver and asking for help is tough, remind yourself of how good you feel when you’re able to take care of your loved ones—helping you will give them that same feeling and, often, will also help them process their own emotions around your diagnosis.
That said, it can sometimes be difficult for people to know exactly how to support you, so give them a little guidance: ask a trusted friend to set up a weekly Zoom call and a group text chat, and use those spaces to fill everyone in on what’s going on with your treatment (this is much less tiring than trying to answer twelve well-intentioned voicemails or texts, and will also foster a sense of being held by your community). Netflix Watch Party is another fun way to “hang out” when you’re too sick and tired to actually hang out, and if more topical conversations about cancer and recovery are what you need, peer-to-peer support groups can be rich sources of support (and sometimes even new friendships).
This is not the time to train for a marathon (or even a 5k), but that doesn’t mean you can’t reap the stress-relieving benefits of regular exercise. Movement—even a short session of gentle movement—increases your body’s levels of “feel-good” endorphins, which reduce depression and anxiety, improve sleep quality, and can help regulate your appetite. The keys here are to listen to your body, to keep your workouts as gentle as they need to be, and to focus on restorative movement (and, always, to make sure you have the okay from your doctor before starting any programming).
Walking, swimming, tai chi, and yoga are all excellent choices to keep anxiety at bay while maintaining strength, flexibility, and circulation, and classes are widely available online. As you transition into treatment, movement is likely to become more difficult. Each of these practices is highly scalable, which means you can modify them as needed instead of giving them up altogether. If the idea of taking on a new skill or practice just feels like too much, you can opt for a simple walk around your neighborhood. Time outside in nature is great for reducing stress, and a “something is better than nothing” mindset will serve you well here.
Whether you listen to it while moving your body or while stretched out on your couch, music is a wonderful mood booster and stress reducer. If you struggle with anxiety, tuning into songs with about 60 beats per minute (the same rate as the human heart) can help. Find playlists by Googling “60 bpm music,” or by searching “60 bpm” on apps like Spotify. If music works well for you, check out the Spiritune App (free to download, with in-app purchases) which uses neuroscience and music therapy theory to create custom playlists of music that promises to help you transition from the mood you’re in to the mood you want to be in.
When most people think of providing support to someone with cancer, they think of tasks and to-do lists. But don’t forget the intangibles can be just as helpful. Your friendship can provide a touchstone of normalcy during a very abnormal time. Tag them in a cute or funny meme on social media, use FaceTime to keep your friend company during a chemo treatment, or just hang out while your friend sleeps or watches TV while recovering from surgery.
There are many ways to help a friend, colleague, or loved one with cancer. This help can take many forms, from big, grand gestures to small, important ones. Offer what you are able, and follow through. What matters most is not what you do, but that you care enough to do it.
CBD (a non-psychoactive derivative of cannabis) can combat stress, anxiety, and depression, and can be taken topically or orally. Be sure to check in with your doctor before using CBD during treatment. If you get the go ahead, two wonderful soothing rituals for anticipatory treatment stress are gentle self-massage with a topical CBD cream like this organic one from FABCBD ($49) and a morning or evening CBD tea latte. This yummy recipe is caffeine free and works well with any high quality CBD oil, like Premium Jane’s organic oil ($48/oz).
The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at [email protected].