Stress After Cancer: How to Lower Your Stress as a Cancer Survivor
Having cancer and going through cancer treatment is stressful. But, what if you’ve finished your treatment and are cancer-free, but you’re still feeling stressed? While it’s a relief to no longer have an active cancer diagnosis, you might experience stress after cancer. You may not feel ready to return to your “normal” life. You could be afraid that your cancer will return. Regardless of the factors contributing to your stress, you might not know how to cope. This article will cover what your stress might look like, what could happen if you don’t manage your stress, and tips to help you take control of your stress.
While your physical health may be your biggest priority in your recovery, your mental health is just as important. Unfortunately for cancer survivors, increased stress after cancer may put you at a higher risk of having your cancer return. While we’re still learning why this happens, it appears that the hormones your body creates while under stress can “awaken” cancer cells. This is why it’s so important to manage your stress after cancer and make your emotional health a priority.
What does stress look like?
Your emotional symptoms of stress may include:
Feeling more sensitive than usual
Trouble with memory
Relying on substances like alcohol to soothe your emotions
Your stress can have physical effects as well. Here are some possible physical signs of stress:
Chest pain, shortness of breath, and palpitations (rapid heartbeat)
Insomnia and fatigue
Headaches or dizziness
Muscle tension or clenching your jaw
In some cases, cancer survivors can develop cancer-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD can develop when you experience distress or traumatic events as a result of your cancer or treatment. For some, this can include receiving your diagnosis or going through cancer treatments like chemotherapy or surgery. PTSD symptoms can present as:
Recurring frightening thoughts
Nightmares and flashbacks
Feeling detached from reality
Trouble thinking clearly
Fear of and avoiding places or situations that trigger bad memories\
What happens if you don’t manage your stress?
Regardless of how your stress shows up, it can result in additional health complications. Unmanaged stress can lead to:
Tension headaches and migraines
Upper and lower back pain
Increased risk of diabetes and heart disease
Digestive problems like nausea and bloating
Reduced sexual desire
Increased risk of mental health conditions like anxiety and depression
Greater risk of cancer recurrence
Steps to lower your stress
When it comes to lowering your stress, everyone's a little different. Some strategies may work better for you than others. However, there are some lifestyle changes and activities that have been shown to help lower stress after cancer. It’s a good idea to choose one strategy at a time so you don’t feel overwhelmed, which might add to your stress.
Eating well supports your physical health, and it benefits your emotional health, too. When you feel stressed, you’re more likely to eat foods that are processed or high in calories and fat. These foods can increase your risk of mental health conditions like depression. Studies show that following a Mediterranean Diet may improve your mental health. The Mediterranean Diet involves eating mostly fruits and veggies, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean meats like fish. Try finding some options you like and include them in your meals.
Exercise is often prescribed by doctors alongside traditional mental health treatments to manage stress. It can help lower your stress after cancer by producing stress-relieving hormones that lift your mood and lower pain. You’ll also regain the strength you may have lost during your treatment, which can boost your self-esteem. Find something that you enjoy, and feel free to think outside of the box. Here are some options to consider:
Walking in nature
A yoga class at the gym
Dancing in your living room
Playing with your kids or pets
If it’s been a while since you last exercised, take it slow. Set a small goal, and work up to a bigger one. It’s best to avoid pushing yourself too hard to avoid feeling fatigued for the next few days.
Mindfulness and Meditation
Mindfulness is the conscious act of bringing awareness to our emotions and the present moment. It helps lower stress while giving you insight into your emotional state. Research has shown that meditation helped women with breast cancer lower their stress after cancer. Some obvious mindful activities include journaling and deep breathing, but you can make any activity a mindful one. If you already have an activity you enjoy, like walking in nature, listening to music, or making art, simply bring awareness to your senses and emotions as you do it.
While you may associate meditation with completely clearing your mind, there are many types of meditation. If the thought of trying to quiet your mind feels difficult, here are some other meditation techniques:
Progressive muscle relaxation - This technique involves drawing attention to each individual body part, squeezing and releasing it as you go. This can be especially helpful if you have tightness due to your stress.
Guided imagery meditation - this form of meditation is usually led by an audio or video session that focuses on imagining a peaceful place or activity to relieve your stress and improve your mood.
Breathing exercises - there are many different breathing meditation techniques, but most involve a repetitive pattern of breathing to lower your body’s stress response.
Nature meditations - getting outside can itself be a great way to lower stress. However, there are meditation practices that you can pair with outdoor activities. Some involve walking, while others involve quietly sitting outside and listening to the sounds around you.
Sleep and Rest
It’s no secret that getting a good night’s sleep can lower your stress levels. It’s especially important for those with stress after cancer, as cancer survivors often have trouble sleeping well. This means that your combination of sleep problems and stress can create a vicious cycle - you can’t sleep because you’re stressed, and you’re stressed because you can’t sleep. Here are some ways you can improve your sleep:
Create a relaxing nighttime routine
Limit caffeine and alcohol in the evening
Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and noise-free
Avoid screen time before bed
Use your bed only for sleep
It’s important to allow yourself some rest outside of sleep, too. Cancer and its treatment methods are hard on your body, and you may have needed to step back from activities and responsibilities. You might feel tempted to jump back in right away. However, you may not be ready. Set small goals for yourself and see how your body and your stress levels respond. Be sure to allow yourself breaks while working on challenging tasks.
Drinking, smoking, and using other drugs are common but unhealthy ways to cope with stress after cancer. Over time, substances can actually worsen your body’s ability to manage stress. This is why it’s important that you form positive ways to cope to minimize reliance on substances. If you need help with lowering your use of substances, SAMSHA- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - has a 24/7 helpline that can provide support over the phone, as well as a treatment locator.
Spend time with your friends and family, and ask for support. While you may want to withdraw as a response to your stress, isolating yourself from people can make things worse in the long run. Make a list of the things that are contributing to your stress after cancer. Do you have responsibilities that are harder for you now, and would you benefit from a helping hand? Delegating these tasks to a trusted family member could give you some breathing room. You may also feel that others don’t understand what you’ve been through. It can help to talk to someone who's in the same situation. Cancer survivor support groups can help you feel validated in your challenges, and you’ll also learn how others are managing their stress after cancer. They're typically led by a counselor and involve the sharing of stories, experiences, and feelings by former cancer patients. The American Cancer Society can help you find a support group in your community.
Use Mental Health Resources
A mental health therapist can be a helpful addition to your cancer care team to help you lower your stress after cancer. Therapy teaches you healthy ways to cope, gives you a better understanding of your emotions, and provides a safe space for you to express yourself. Seeking professional help is especially important if you feel you have cancer-related post-traumatic stress.
Some therapists specialize in cancer and cancer survivors. You can use the Psychologist Locator and other support services from the American Psychological Association to find a licensed mental health professional in your area. Another option to find a therapist is your insurance provider’s website to be sure they are covered by your insurance provider.
Seek Financial Support and Use Available Resources
Cancer treatment is expensive, especially if your treatment period was long. Over 70% of cancer survivors report that they worry about finances after cancer. The American Cancer Society has a financial assistance page that can provide you with information on how to connect with financial support in your area.
The National Cancer Institute has a lot of helpful content to help you address stressful concerns. Their website includes tips for coping, support for caregivers, and questions to ask your doctor after you've finished treatment.
Related Article: Life After Cancer
I’m overwhelmed by my feelings of stress after my cancer, and I need help.
This means you have solutions for the physical aspects of your stress, like digestive problems, neck tension, and trouble sleeping.
Goodpath includes mental wellbeing as part of every treatment plan. Your program will be tailored to your individual needs, and you’ll have guidance from a health coach along the way to help you make changes to improve symptoms and lower stress.