Cancer patients are often left with feelings of extreme helplessness. This experience of hopelessness, in addition to feeling overwhelmed by social and often financial constraints, can culminate in a state of severe psychosocial stress – or simply “stress.” While stress in and of itself can significantly detract from quality of life, research has also linked stress in cancer patients with decreased survival.

What is “Stress?”

In 1936, an Austro-Hungarian scientist named Hans Selye published the first treatise on stress. Through a combination of lab work and observation, he discovered what he called a “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change,” but which he later dubbed “stress.” The stress response is universal in all mammals. It triggers a flood of hormones that prime the body for action, including epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradreniline), and cortisol. These stimulate your heart and lungs, and raise glucose levels in the bloodstream — the classic “flight or fight” response. Normally, this is a temporary condition. However, if a person is subject to continual psychological stress, the body hasn’t a chance to recover and such stress becomes a chronic condition – potentially contributing to a number of serious health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stomach ulcers, muscle pains, infection, and even cancer.

Can Psychological Stress Contribute to Cancer Risk?

While there is no direct link between stress and cancer, evidence suggests it does play a peripheral role. Continued stress can promote unhealthy behaviors – such as over-eating, smoking, and alcohol  or substance abuse.

How to Cope with Stress

There are several ways to reduce stress on your own, without medication.

  • Exercise: Exercise releases neurotransmitters called endorphins that bind to opioid receptors, reducing pain and creating sensations of mild euphoria, similar to morphine. Though the amount of exercise required to achieve an endorphin “high” varies from person to person, all forms of exercise release endorphins – walking, running, swimming, weight lifting, and yoga. Yoga is particularly effective as it includes low-impact movement and breathing exercises – making it one of the few widely accessible exercises that actively promotes relaxation.
  • Meditation & Prayer: Meditation induces the “relaxation response,” the opposite of “fight or flight.” It lowers your heart rate, breathing rate, and can even effect metabolism. Try sitting in a quiet space, in a comfortable pose, and repeat a single word, phrase, or thought for ten or twenty minutes each day. That’s all it takes. Prayer produces similar effects. When performed in a quiet setting, it allows people to focus on problems in a calm, constructive manner.
  • Family & Friends: Human contact is a primal need. It’s not surprising that having a close group of friends and family close by makes it easier to cope – especially during an illness. Friends and family are probably the single most important stress relief mechanism. Studies have shown that time spent with them lowers blood pressure and cortisol. Cancer patients may also benefit from joining a support group. Talking through problems with other patients helps gain perspective and promotes bonding with people who have shared experiences. Many members of support groups remain friends for years.

Between work, home, and family, cancer patients have many responsibilities that make it easy lose sight of their own needs. Remember, it’s not selfish to set aside a little time for yourself. Relaxation is essential to your health and well-being.