Reducing Stress During Cancer Treatment: Tips for Patients & Caregivers

Friday, July 5, 2019 - 9:30am

A cancer diagnosis and the treatment that follows can be very stressful for patients and their loved ones. While there is currently no definitive proof that stress causes cancer, research has shown that chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease, depress the immune system, and increase the chance of developing colds and infections. Any of those conditions can cause serious health problems while a patient is undergoing treatment. That’s one reason it’s important for you to talk with your medical team about how you’re coping emotionally.

I’m a patient. What are some ways to relieve my stress during treatment?

You may want to meet with a mental health provider to discuss any concerns you have and to work on strengthening your coping skills. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Engage in regular exercise or movement, such as yoga or walking, when you feel up to it.
  • Learn mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, to promote a sense of inner calm.
  • Focus on what matters most and ask others to help with tasks that aren’t at the top of your list. This can help you manage daily stresses, especially when you’re experiencing treatment-related side effects. Your family or friends may be looking for ways to be helpful, and it can take some strain off of you and your immediate caregiver if others are able to run errands or help prepare meals.
  • Find someone who can listen and validate your concerns. Often when patients try to share their fears or worries with others, their concerns are minimized, and — intentionally or not — they are made to feel that they should keep their emotions to themselves. Look for a good listener — a family member, friend, member of the clergy or counselor.

I’m a caregiver. How can I provide emotional support to a patient to help them deal with their stress during treatment?

As a caregiver, you are probably the first person to recognize that the patient is feeling particularly stressed. You may even be on the receiving end of the patient's frustration or anger. If that happens, it's important to try not to take it personally. While the patient may take these emotions out on those who are closest to them, they are probably not upset with you personally.

You may want to check in with them on a regular basis to ask what they need from you, or how you can be helpful, rather than assuming to know. This can help the patient feel they have some control during a time when many things feel very much out of their control. Finally, rather than feeling that you must provide everything, help the patient come up with an overall plan to have their needs met. Reach out to others to help with this, and be honest with yourself about how much physical and emotional energy you have on any given day.

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I’m a caregiver. What can I do if I’m feeling stressed out about my loved one's diagnosis?

It's important for you to be considered part of the treatment team, but you also need care yourself. The caregiving role can be both rewarding and stressful, and it is vital that you balance the needs of the patient with your own physical and emotional needs. Just as with patients, caregivers can benefit from regular exercise or movement, time alone, social outings/interactions, and non-cancer-related conversations. While it may be difficult to fit these things into your already-busy schedule — especially considering all the roles a caregiver plays — self-care for the caregiver should be included as part of the treatment plan, because without a healthy caregiver, the patient's care will be compromised. It’s not a matter of whether you’ll need self-care, but when you’ll need it and how you’ll achieve it.

I’m a cancer survivor. How can I relieve the stress and anxiety I feel that my cancer will come back?

Fear of recurrence is a very normal and common response after cancer treatment has ended. Typically this concern will decrease over time as you move further and further beyond treatment, especially if follow-up testing and scans are found to be normal. If your fear of recurrence does not improve several months after treatment has ended, you may want to meet with a mental health provider who can help you develop coping skills to manage these concerns.