Putting Stress in Its Place

by Bonnie A. McGregor, PhD

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Acknowledge your feelings, and don’t be frightened of them. Writing them down can help.

The diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from cancer is a continuum. When your doctor tells you that you’re cancer-free, there’s a sense of relief. However, even though the treatment is over, the emotional and physical recovery is only just beginning.

You may find yourself facing ongoing physical challenges after cancer. Even simple tasks may seem harder to perform. You may fear that common cold symptoms or minor body aches are signs of the cancer returning. And family and friends who enthusiastically supported you through the difficult treatment phase may become anxious for a return to normalcy.

All of these challenges can result in more stress, and elevated stress can interfere with your recovery. Fortunately, cognitive-behavioral stress management techniques can help you put stress in its place and mitigate its harmful physical effects.

Be Prepared
The most important way to manage stress is to be prepared for physical and emotional challenges during recovery. Talk with your healthcare team about what to expect.

Remember that being cancer-free is not necessarily a return to normal. Full recovery is a gradual process toward a new normal.

Ask for Help
Managing stress requires asking for help. During treatment, friends and family may have offered to help. Now, they may assume that since you are done with treatment, you don’t need help. But you do need help. Indeed, most survivors report significant fatigue and physical symptoms well after their active treatment has ended.

Being cancer-free is not necessarily a return to normal. Full recovery is a gradual process toward a new normal.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Bonnie McGregor

It’s OK to ask for help. Just be specific about the help you need. Make a list of available friends and family, and write down what each person does best. If one friend is more punctual, she might be best to ask for a ride to a follow-up appointment. If one is a good cook, perhaps he can provide a dinner. If you have a friend who likes to garden, she could help pull weeds in your flowerbeds.

Focus Your Attention
Another helpful stress-management tool is meditation. Meditation is simply focusing your mind on a given task or experience, like breathing. Simply sit in a comfortable position and focus on your breathing. When you notice your attention has shifted somewhere else, return your focus to your breathing. Practice 5 to 10 minutes at first, and if possible, gradually build up your time to 30 to 60 minutes.

We live in a complicated world where we are expected to multitask. Don’t fall into the multitask trap; instead, focus on the task at hand. For example, if you’re washing dishes, focus on the grime coming off the plates. Feel the soapy water swirling around your hands. When we focus on a single task, our body’s stress system gets a break.

Make Time for Exercise
Many cancer survivors report fatigue, difficulty sleeping, pain, and cognitive challenges persist after treatment. Exercise can help all of these symptoms. The benefits of exercise cannot be overstated; it keeps the body and mind strong. Find an exercise that suits your lifestyle, may it be walking, biking, swimming, or lifting weights. The important thing is to get moving, even if that means just walking around the block.

Energy is like money. Invest it wisely. Investing a little energy in exercise today can pay off with more energy tomorrow. However, if one day you feel strong, be careful not to overdo it. Maintain a healthy balance of exercise and other activities. Bank energy one day to withdraw it on another.

Put Your Emotions to Paper
As a cancer survivor, you have changed whether you wanted to or not. You can help integrate those changes into the new you by writing in a journal. Write your thoughts and feelings, your joys and worries. Be honest and don’t edit yourself. Emotional healing is a critical part of survivorship. Acknowledge your feelings, and don’t be frightened of them. Writing them down can help.

Stress works against the healing process of any disease, including cancer. And while stress cannot be eliminated from your life, it can be managed. Understanding the source of your stress and applying these techniques to limit that stress can greatly reduce the physical and emotional impact of cancer. The result will be a better recovery and a stronger, more confident you.

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Dr. Bonnie McGregor is an associate member of the Cancer Prevention Program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, a research associate professor in the department of Health Services at the University of Washington School of Public Health, and an adjunct research associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the University of Washington School of Medicine. She is also a licensed clinical psychologist.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2013.