Stress and Cancer: Caring for Your Mental Health

5 min read

Stress and Cancer: Caring for Your Mental Health

A cancer diagnosis can cause great anxiety and stress, affecting all areas of your life. Mental health and cancer treatment can be challenging to balance. As you adjust to your diagnosis and go through treatment, it’s essential to take care of your mental health as well as your physical health. By taking steps to prioritize your mental and emotional well-being every day, you can reduce your stress and help your body stay strong.

The Effects of Stress on the Body

Mental health and physical health go hand in hand, especially when it comes to cancer treatment. 

Stress can have many negative physical effects, including:

  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Lack of sleep

When stress levels are high on a regular basis, these effects take a toll on your overall health. Chronic stress can lead to an increased risk for high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. High levels of certain hormones, like cortisol, can weaken your immune system, making you more susceptible to illness.

While stress has not been proven to cause cancer in the body, the negative physical effects of stress can decrease your body’s defenses. Studies have shown that chronic stress can promote the growth of already-present cancer cells and even lessen the effectiveness of chemotherapy.   

The Emotional Effects of Cancer

Each person reacts differently to hearing the news that they have cancer, but anxiety, distress, and depression are natural emotions that may occur following a cancer diagnosis. For many people, these feelings can be overwhelming. After diagnosis, throughout treatment, and even after treatment has ended, it’s common for people to feel sadness, fear, and anger. They might worry about how cancer will affect not only their body but their relationships with loved ones and their ability to work or take care of their family. They might also experience fears about dying and other worries about the future.

All of these feelings are normal and will likely come and go. Certain pivotal points during the cancer journey can trigger these emotions, such as:

What to Do When You Have Trouble Coping

If fears or negative thoughts become overwhelming, or you notice signs of depression, consider seeking help from a support group and/or a therapist to help you find ways to cope. Signs to watch for include:

  • Experiencing panic
  • Feeling an overwhelming sense of dread
  • Losing interest in activities you enjoy
  • Having trouble eating and/or sleeping
  • Struggling to concentrate or think clearly
  • Feeling hopeless or so sad that you don’t see the point in receiving cancer treatment
  • Having a hard time coping with treatment side effects
  • Questioning your faith and beliefs
  • Feeling like you are worthless 
  • Experiencing a lack of energy and extreme tiredness every day

If you are experiencing any of these thoughts or emotions on a regular basis, it might be time to reach out for help. To find a therapist or support group, you can start by asking your healthcare team for recommendations. At Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers (RMCC), our social workers can connect you with support groups and other helpful resources in the community as well as refer you to mental health professionals who can help. 

Many support groups are also available in the cancer community online. Try doing a search for virtual groups that interest you. If you feel that a certain group isn’t a good fit for you, you can ask our team of social workers for recommendations to help you find one that feels right. 

In addition to attending a support group, talking to a therapist, and taking advantage of any employer-provided mental health resources, if you are still working, you can take additional steps to focus on your mental health when you are feeling overwhelmed or having trouble coping. Try the following:

  • Reach out to family members or friends and talk to them about how you are feeling.
  • Young woman meditating on the beach at sunsetDevelop a daily mindfulness and meditation practice. One way to do this is to close your eyes while in a comfortable position and focus on your breath as you let thoughts come and go without reacting to them. Start with a few minutes every day and slowly work your way to longer periods. Studies have shown that people with cancer who do this regularly have improved mental and physical health. If you need more guidance to help you meditate, consider apps, such as Calm or Headspace. You can also tap into RMCC’s Practicing Mindfulness support group. 
  • Perform relaxation exercises. Try taking deep breaths while releasing tension from every part of your body, from your head to your toes. When you feel relaxed, imagine yourself in a peaceful place, such as a beach or a forest.
  • Seek out spiritual support from your church.
  • Write your thoughts and emotions in a journal.
  • Ask your physician about medications for depression and anxiety.
  • Exercise regularly if approved by your oncologist.  

The main thing to remember is that you are not alone in your journey through cancer treatment. If your depression is severe, don’t wait to reach out to your healthcare provider or mental health provider for help. If you are having suicidal thoughts, call 911 immediately or the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). They can connect you with a counselor who can guide you through your grief and direct you to a suicide crisis center that is close to you. Do not be afraid to reach out for help.

Cancer Care You Can Count on at Rocky Mountain Cancer Centers

At RMCC, we are dedicated to providing personalized care for every aspect of your cancer journey. We offer many supportive care programs to help patients and their families cope with cancer, including a variety of classes and support groups, and our compassionate clinical social workers that are here to help you with both practical and emotional needs. 

Meet the supportive care team at RMCC and learn about the many ways they can help you on your cancer journey.