Stress and cancer

Having cancer, or supporting someone with cancer, can be very stressful and can affect both your mental and physical health. 

The information on this page will help you find out more about what causes stress when you have cancer, how to identify the signs, your personal triggers, how to manage stress and how can help.

    What is stress?

    Stress is your body’s response to feeling threatened, scared or under pressure – all of which are common when you're affected by cancer.

    At times of stress, chemicals are released by your body to boost energy and make you more alert so you can protect yourself. 

    This can be helpful short term as it can give you strength to manage physical tasks or emotions at a tough time. 

    Over longer periods, however, stress can be an exhausting extra burden at an already difficult time. 

      Emotional and physical signs

      We show stress in different ways and the effects can build up slowly over time.

      This means it can be difficult to notice signs of long term stress and the added pressure it causes in yourself or in others.

      Emotional stress

      If you are stressed you may experience your emotions much more intensely.

      You may feel feel tearful, irritable, detached or numb or have feelings that you can’t cope.

      Physical stress

      Stress can also trigger physical symptoms including headaches, irritable bowel symptoms, pain and rashes.

      Your sleep and appetite may be affected, you may feel sick, or get frequent colds as stress can reduce your resistance to infection.

      Effects of stress when you have cancer

      People with cancer and their families report several factors which can add to stress. These include:

      • worrying about the uncertain future
      • tiring treatments
      • frequent hospital visits
      • physical changes
      • financial and employment worries
      • relationship pressures
      • not feeling in control
      • managing other people's reactions to your cancer
      • finding situations or tasks you usually cope with overwhelming.

      You may have to deal with other people’s worries and misperceptions too.

      For example - people may tell you that  ‘you must stay positive’,  others may try to avoid you, and some will want you to share every detail. 

      Stress can also happen once treatment has finished. 

      Whilst you are undergoing treatment, most of your time and energy is focused on your treatment and getting healthy. 

      It is only when the immediate crisis is over, and you are trying to adjust to life post cancer, that stress may occur. 

      It is a common point at which many people may seek help, and think about stress management.

        Managing stress

        Stress management includes gaining control of your thoughts, emotions, worries and how you deal with problems. 

        It can also involve making changes and taking back control of other areas of your life, through exercise and a balanced diet, for example.

        Finding out more about what causes stress, identifying the signs, your personal triggers and developing your own personal stress tool kit can all help you to manage stress, allowing you to focus your energy elsewhere.

        Top tips for managing stress

        • Prioritise your health:  this'll help both your physical and emotional resilience. Try to get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet regularly and drink plenty of water - keeping hydrated helps memory and concentration
        • Exercise: gentle exercise has many benefits during and after treatment for cancer, and helps to manage stress. 
        • Master time: prioritise  tasks, and allow yourself time to take things step by step to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Don’t feel you have to answer every email or phone call.
        • Make time for you: each day try and make some space to do something you enjoy - however small that is. 
        • Learn to say no and to ask for help when you need it.  People are usually willing to help,  but they often just don’t know how until you ask them.
        • Managing thoughts:  thoughts, and how we think, are closely linked to how we feel. Thoughts are not facts. There are strategies you can learn to help to manage those circling worries and questions.
        • Relaxation and breathing exercises used regularly can help reduce stress and are also useful techniques to help you feel more in control when you are feeling overwhelmed.
        • Share: tell someone (family, friends, GP, hospital team) how you are feeling. Visit our centres to talk with others in a similar situation  

        What now?

        Have a look at the suggested blogs and links on this page and think about how you can start to manage your stress

        Maggie’s runs free six-week ‘Managing Stress’ courses for anyone affected by cancer.  

        We also have relaxation groups, mindfulness courses and gentle exercises classes (including tai chi and yoga). 

        We have professional teams to help you to start to build you own stress management tool kit. 

        Drop into one of our centres to talk things over.

        Last review: Oct 2021 | Next review: Oct 2022

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