Cancer: Managing Stress 

Summary: Stress is inevitable when the diagnosis of cancer comes rolling along. Knowing how to handle the stress when it comes along will be beneficial in your treatment, your relationships, and your every day living. Here you can learn how stress builds up in various ways, emergency stress-stopping coping activities, and stress relieving daily practices. Remember, if at any time your stress gets too great, do not hesitate to reach out to your medical care team for help. 

 

Anxiety and stress sideline most all cancer treatments and are often impossible to completely shake. From the time of diagnosis, your stress levels may be higher than usual, and you may feel more anxious or stressed out about things that would normally not push you to the brink. During treatment, you may worry that your treatment may not be working or work at all, thusly forcing you into another life-fighting battle. Or, your treatments may be bringing new side effects and issues or rectified the issues you were dealing with. For some, this might mean becoming more accustomed and used to the “new” you and your new normal. 

Some find that upon diagnosis, they have a new way of thinking and living their lives. They see things for what they are, and what they are not. You might decide to spend more time with your family and friends or make time to do something that you have been thinking about for some time. You might find peace and comfort in new activities like volunteering, taking up a new hobby, or doing community work to bring a greater good to your local community. For others, they use this rebirth to reclaim their lives. Many leave troubles marriages and relationships, begin new career paths, or begin a new job.  

Every person is different when it comes to their coping mechanisms and how they handle stress. Every human anticipates and works through stress, depression, worry, fear, the unknown and other emotionally charged situations in their own way. During your journey, you may find that your coping mechanisms for these situations are not as strong or stable as you want them to be. This is often a stage where many people turn to therapy to help them not only through the chaos of cancer, but also to help them find and grasp on to their true selves. Other people find that they can cope very well as long as they have a support team of family and friends behind them to help when they need it. 

Most often, people approach their stress and problems in one of two ways. They will either actively work on them or avoid them altogether. In most all cases, actively coping and working through any issue is better and much healthier for the body, mind, and life. It can be very tempting and feel easier to simply avoid the problems or issues. Not talking about a problem never makes it go away; instead, almost makes it grow into the giant elephant sitting in the corner of the room.  

Here are some ideas on different wats you can cope with your stressors and problems in your life: 

  • Take action to get rid of the problem and work towards an ultimate solution.  
  • Plan how to deal with the problem if and when it arises. 
  • Look for advice and information to deal with the problem from others who have gone through the situation before, or those you trust. 
  • Look for sympathy and emotional support from family, friends, and local support groups. 
  • Accept that the problem exists and decide what you can and cannot control. Controlling our own reactions to situations and problems that arise can also help to control overall stress levels in the body.  
  • Try to get a new perspective by making the best of the situation. Some people do this by thinking through all aspects of the situation: the worst outcome, the mid-grade outcome, and the best outcome.  
  • Become aware of your feelings about the problem and express them to others without fear or hesitation. This may take some time to accomplish and become comfortable with.  

Choosing not to talk about the stress, a situation, or your feelings may lead to hostile environments, impulsive and irresponsible behaviors, future regret, and could possibly worsen the situation as a whole. It is important not to confused restraining behavior with suppressing feelings. Self-awareness and understanding your own feelings are extremely important for better mental health.  

An example would be a cancer patient fearing that their partner would be turned off by their breast reconstruction surgery, and they may avoid being intimate or sexual because of this. While this behavior is innocent and only further proves that the stress is indeed affecting the patient, it can lead to further and worsening relationship conditions. Either of these partners- the unheard patient, or the feeling-left-out partner, could start an argument or fight about intimacy or something entirely unrelated. It is much better to be open with your partner, even with uncomfortable topics. Stress has a way of morphing into a multitude of things and showing itself as everything but the original stressor itself.  

Do your best to talk to your partner and discuss any worry, frustration, or issue and allow your partner to openly respond. Even if this issue is intimacy, talk about sex openly so that both you and your partner feel safe and supported in this intimate adventure. Healthy ways to deal with the usual stressful feelings that might accompany treatment are to: 

  • Learn about the common feelings that many cancer survivors experience after treatment 
  • Recognize when you need more support with emotional issues 
  • Know where to get support and how to move forward 

For some, avoidance will always be their first crutch, until they learn how to handle stress and chaos in life. These are common avoidance techniques used by many men and women today.  

  • Deny that the problem exists and carry on as if the stress does not affect them.  
  • Withdraw from social experience and group activities. 
  • Avoid any thoughts and discussions about the problem or how to fix it. 
  • Wishful and grandiose thinking. 
  • Use drugs or alcohol to forget the problem, citing it is only for the “fun.” 
  • Blame and criticize yourself for the problem, while working towards no real solution. 
  • Keep extra busy and ignore the problem thinking that the problem will simply vanish or fix itself. 

If you are experiencing stress, consider trying an emergency stress-stopper or a stress relieving activity. Emergency stress-stoppers are actions to help defuse and lessen the stress in the moment. You might need more than one stress-stopper to find the relief you seek, depending on the situation you are in. You can also combine these ideas together for a more customized approach. Try these emergency stress-stoppers: 

  • Count to ten before you speak or react. 
  • Take a few slow, deep breaths until you feel your body begin to relax a bit. 
  • Go for a walk, even if it is just to the restroom and back. It can help break the tension and give you a chance to think things through. 
  • Try a quick meditation or prayer to get some perspective. 
  • If it is not urgent, sleep on it and respond tomorrow. This works especially well for stressful emails and social media trolls. 
  • Walk away from the situation for a while and handle it later once things have calmed down. 
  • Break down big problems into smaller parts. Take one step at a time, instead of trying to tackle everything at once. 
  • Turn on some of your favorite music or an inspirational podcast to help you deal with any rage. 
  • Take a break to pet the dog, hug a loved one or do something to help someone else that they cannot repay you for. This action is an instant, proven mood-lifter.  
  • Work out or do something active. Exercise is a great stress reducer. 

 

Stress relieving activities are also very beneficial and help to relieve your stress and put you in your “happy place.” Doing things that you enjoy are natural ways to immediately reduce stress, and pep you up again if you are feeling down. This could be something as simple as going for a walk, catching up with an old friend, or reading a book in the solitude of your favorite backyard chair. When stress begins to make you feel off or bad, do something that makes you feel good, even if it is only for a short time period, or minutes at a time.  

 

Here are some activities to consider, depending on your likes and dislikes: 

  • Make art. Do something like draw, color, paint, or play a musical instrument. 
  • Work on a scrapbook or photo album to focus on good memories. 
  • Read a book, short story or magazine. Or, write one if you feel inclined. 
  • Meet a friend for coffee or to share a meal. 
  • Play a favorite sport like golf, tennis, or basketball. Or take up swimming, which is very body beneficial and low impact. 
  • Do or learn a new  hobby like sewing, knitting, or making jewelry.  
  • Play with your kids or pets. Do it outdoors if possible. 
  • Listen to music or watch an inspiring performance. 
  • Take a walk-in the outdoors, touching nature when you can. 
  • Take a relaxing bath and feel the stress wash away. 
  • Meditate or practice yoga. 
  • Work in the garden or do a home improvement project. 
  • Go for a run or bike ride to clear your head. 

The key is to find your “thing” and make it a practice and part of your routine. You will be amazed at how quickly you may start to feel better once you disrupt the cycle of stress. It is an easy cycle to fall into, especially when dealing with cancer.  

 

Resources Used: 

ACS 

NIH 

Reclaiming Intimacy

 

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