What You Need To Know About Managing Stress During Cancer

Feeling Stressed is Stressful!

Everyone Experiences Stress From Time To Time.

Stress means different things to different people, but in general, stress refers to an emotional response to situations we feel we cannot cope with. Basically this means being under pressure and feeling REALLY overwhelmed! Untreated chronic stress (stress that lasts for a long time) can lead to anxiety, muscle pain, digestive problems, headaches, insomnia, high blood pressure, overeating, depression and more.

Most People Don’t Like Feeling Stressed, However, Stress Is Not Always Bad!

Stress warns you that something difficult is happening or about to happen, and can motivate you to take action and improve your situation. Have you ever considered that small amounts of stress during exam time helped motivate you to get through long study periods or that stress associated with medical tests motivated you to get them done? Let’s face it though, most of the time stress is unpleasant and can get in the way of enjoying life.

Receiving A Cancer Diagnosis Is Likely The Most Stressful Event You Have Experienced.

The feeling of having little or no control over cancer is one of the reasons it is so stressful. We also know that other events associated with cancer, such as changes to appearance, anxiety about treatment, fear of cancer returning, juggling study or work and losing touch with friends, are all likely to increase stress in young people. Whilst you are not able to control cancer, and you can’t stop difficult thoughts and feelings associated with cancer, it is possible to learn ways to respond differently to your experiences, which in turn can help reduce stress.

1. Use Problem-Solving.

If you are having trouble making a decision, or there is a possibility that the situation causing stress (or part of the situation) can be changed, problem solving can be very helpful.

  • First make a list of the problems that are causing stress.
  • Choose one problem to focus on at a time.
  • Make a list of all possible solutions (even crazy unrealistic ones!). Write some Pros and Cons for each solution.
  • Then choose one solution, break it down in to smaller steps and give it a try. This may include asking for an extension on a SAC, or it could be developing a planner and spacing out social and work/study commitments.

2. Talk to other people in the same situation as you.

YouCan Connect is a free online platform where young people in Australia who are dealing with cancer can connect and chat online.

3. Looking after your Health whilst having treatment for cancer can be VERY difficult.

Nausea, vomiting, fatigue and food cravings all get in the way of maintaining a healthy diet, regular sleep and fitness. The research shows however, that consuming a diet high in protein and energy, getting adequate sleep and maintaining some level of fitness both during and after cancer treatment can reduce stress.

4. Recognise ‘stress’ thoughts; those that induce stress.

Common ‘stress’ thoughts amongst young people with cancer, such as ‘what if my cancer comes back’, ‘what if I can’t get through treatment’, ‘what if treatment fails’, can all contribute to feeling stressed and overwhelmed. There are a few strategies that may be helpful when faced with ‘stress’ thoughts;

  • Increase your awareness and recognise when ‘stress’ thoughts are occurring.
  • Recognise ‘stress’ thoughts as just thoughts, rather than true statements (thoughts and facts are not the same)
  • Try the following exercise: 1/ Say the thought out loud a few times. 2/ Add the following statement to the thought ‘I notice that I am having the thought’, For example, replace ‘I can’t cope’ with ‘I notice that I am having the thought that I cannot cope’.
  • Be kind to yourself and focus on what you CAN do in stressful situations.

5. Stay Present.

Often when we feel stressed, we are focussed only on future events (e.g., coping with cancer treatment). By increasing your awareness of what is going on inside (e.g., thoughts, feelings) and outside (e.g., sight, sounds) you in the present, we can better tune in to things that are more important or enjoyable. So aim to notice your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and environment in the present moment.

  • Try tuning in to the sounds around you, like the lyrics of a song, or the background noises.
  • You could try focussing on your breath, or pushing your feet firmly into the ground noticing the physical world around you,
  • Or try tuning in to different parts of your body as you stretch.

    6. Keep it Simple.

    Sometimes something simple like a warm bath, a massage, listening to your favourite song, drawing, playing with your pet or taking a walk can temporarily relieve stress until you are ready to try other strategies like those listed above.

    If you would like further information or support please speak to your GP or treating medical team.

    Lauren Williams is a Clinical Psychologist at ONTrac at Peter Mac Victorian Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Service.

    Do you have any tips to add to this list? Share your experiences in the comments below!