Stress Management When You Have Cancer

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Stress Management When You Have Cancer

Topic Overview

The diagnosis of cancer presents many challenges, and you may feel a great deal of stress. Some people try to relieve stress by smoking, drinking, overeating, using drugs, or just "shutting down." Some people become violent or abusive in response to stress. These methods of coping have harmful side effects. By learning other ways to deal with symptoms of stress, you can avoid problems that may affect yourself or others and improve your overall quality of life.

  • Express yourself. Stress and tension affect our emotions. By expressing your feelings to others, you may be able to understand and cope with them.
    • Join a support group. Talking about a problem with your spouse, a good friend, or other people with similar problems is a valuable way to reduce tension and stress.
    • Cry. Crying also can relieve tension. It's part of the emotional healing process.
    • Artistic expression. Expressing yourself through writing, crafts, dance, or art also may be a good tension reliever. Some dance, writing, or art groups may be available especially for individuals diagnosed with cancer.
  • Get moving. Regular, moderate physical activity may be the single best approach to managing stress. Walking briskly will take advantage of the rapid pulse and tensed muscles caused by stress and release your pent-up energy. After a long walk, your stress level is lower and more manageable.
  • Be kind to your body and mind. Getting enough sleep, eating a nutritious diet, and taking time to do things you enjoy can contribute to an overall feeling of balance in your life and help reduce stress.
  • Get help if you need it. Discuss your concerns with your doctor, counselor, or other health professional.

Relaxation skills

Whatever you do to manage stress, you can benefit from the regular use of relaxation skills.

The following methods of relaxation and meditation are among the simplest and most effective. They should be done twice a day for about 20 minutes. Pick a time and place where you won't be disturbed or distracted. After you've trained your body and mind to relax (2 to 3 weeks), you'll be able to produce that same relaxed state whenever you want.

Roll breathing

The way you breathe affects your whole body. Full, deep breathing is a good way to reduce tension and feel relaxed. The object of roll breathing is to develop full use of your lungs and get in touch with the rhythm of your breathing. It can be practiced in any position, but it is best to learn it lying on your back with your knees bent.

  1. Place your left hand on your abdomen and your right hand on your chest. Notice how your hands move as you breathe in and out.
  2. Practice filling your lower lungs by breathing so that your left hand goes up when you inhale and your right hand remains still. Always inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth.
  3. When you have filled and emptied your lower lungs 8 to 10 times, add the second step to your breathing: Inhale first into your lower lungs as before, and then continue inhaling into your upper chest. As you do so, your right hand will rise and your left hand will fall a little as your abdomen falls.
  4. As you exhale slowly through your mouth, make a quiet, whooshing sound as first your left hand and then your right hand falls. As you exhale, feel the tension leaving your body as you become more and more relaxed.
  5. Practice breathing in and out in this manner for 3 to 5 minutes. Notice that the movement of your abdomen and chest is like rolling waves rising and falling in a rhythmic motion.

Practice roll breathing daily for several weeks until you can do it almost anywhere, providing an instant relaxation tool any time you need one.

Caution: Some people get dizzy the first few times they try roll breathing. If you begin to hyperventilate or become lightheaded, slow your breathing. Get up slowly.

Progressive muscle relaxation

The body responds to stressful thoughts or situations with muscle tension, which can cause pain or discomfort. Deep muscle relaxation reduces muscle tension and general mental anxiety, too. Progressive muscle relaxation is effective in combating stress-related health problems and often helps people get to sleep.


You can use a prerecorded audiotape to help you go through all the muscle groups, or you can do it by just tensing and relaxing each muscle group.

Choose a place where you can lie down on your back and stretch out comfortably, such as a carpeted floor. Tense each muscle group for 4 to 10 seconds (hard but not to the point of cramping), then give yourself 10 to 20 seconds to release it and relax.

Now and then take the time to review all the muscle groups. Then relax each one a little more each time you use this method.

How to tense each muscle group
  • Hands: Clench them.
  • Wrists and forearms: Extend them and bend the hands back at the wrist.
  • Biceps and upper arms: Clench your hands into fists, bend your arms at the elbows, and flex your biceps.
  • Shoulders: Shrug them.
  • Forehead: Wrinkle it into a deep frown.
  • Around the eyes and bridge of the nose: Close your eyes as tightly as possible. (Remove contact lenses before beginning the exercise.)
  • Cheeks and jaws: Grin from ear to ear.
  • Around the mouth: Press your lips together tightly. (Check your facial area for tension.)
  • Back of the neck: Press your head back hard.
  • Front of the neck: Touch your chin to your chest. (Check your neck and head for tension.)
  • Chest: Take a deep breath and hold it, then exhale.
  • Back: Arch your back up and away from the floor.
  • Stomach: Suck it into a tight knot. (Check your chest and stomach for tension.)
  • Hips and buttocks: Press the buttocks together tightly.
  • Thighs: Clench them hard.
  • Lower legs: Point your toes toward your face, as if trying to bring the toes up to touch your head. Then point your toes away and curl them downward at the same time. (Check the area from your waist down for tension.)

When you are finished, return to alertness by counting backwards from 5 to 1.


ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAnne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerRoss Berkowitz, MD - Obstetrics and Gynecology
Last RevisedAugust 1, 2012

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