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How to manage stress related to cancer


Imagine having a medical test and getting the phone call that there is something abnormal, and more testing is necessary to determine if it’s cancer. Not knowing is a very difficult emotional state. It’s likely that your body will react to this with adrenal hormones like cortisol and its fight or flight response. This leads to racing hearts and minds, difficulty sleeping, tight muscles, digestive problems, and a sense of dis-ease. If this stress response continues, it can affect every cell and organ in your body and impair your body’s ability to heal.

Fortunately, there are many things a person can do to help manage the stress related to a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Social support is essential; allow others to be involved and accept the care you need. Find ways to do the things that normally bring you peace—like physical activity, time in nature or worship services. For many people, spiritual practices or spiritual counseling are very helpful.

Physical activity is a powerful stress reducer. Our bodies are meant to move every day, so keeping as active as possible is important. On the other hand, it’s important to listen to your body, and not over-do it, especially during cancer treatment. Regular exercise can help give a sense of control and remind people of the strength of their minds and bodies. It is also proven to help prevent cancer recurrences.

Mind-body medicine includes many techniques that are proven to help reduce stress.  The simplest technique is to change your breathing in order to activate the resting part of the nervous system. Periodically taking a few slow, deep breaths into the abdomen with a slow easy exhalation can help down regulate that fight or flight response.

Yoga has been proven in clinical studies to help patients with cancer—especially with symptoms related to stress, like anxiety, fatigue, mood and insomnia. Yoga is much more than just stretching. It includes breath work and increases awareness of the body. With practice, it becomes a moving meditation, and prepares the body to sit in meditation.

Research on meditation in cancer patients shows that it can help with stress, quality of life, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Mindfulness meditation trains the mind to be in the present moment, in a kind and non-judgmental way, rather than worrying about the future or re-hashing the past. For most people, meditation is difficult at first due to racing thoughts. Training the mind to focus on the breath is a skill that requires instruction and practice. Classes in meditation and yoga are available in Appleton and Oshkosh through Affinity Health System’s Integrative Medicine Department. See www.affinityhealth.org/integrative for details.

Counseling can help a person learn to cope with the difficult emotions that are a normal response to a cancer diagnosis. Emotional health and physical health are not separate, but are intertwined aspects of our whole state of health. If a person is struggling emotionally, it is important to seek care, and should not be a sign of weakness or a stigma. Rather, it’s a sign of strength to get help to face difficulties.

About Dr. Jennifer Norden

Dr. Jennifer Norden, provides integrative medicine services, including medical acupuncture and guidance on nutrition and lifestyle. She is board-certified in internal medicine.

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