Stress Reduction and Cancer

A number of year ago while I was in medical school I had an enlightening conversation with a brilliant Native American woman. We were talking about cancer and she told me “in my tribe tumors are said to be the hardened masses of tears that were never shed”. It has long been known that dealing with cancer diagnosis and treatment is an extremely stressful experience. For many years stress management has been used in cancer care as a way to improve quality of life and reduce distress in patient’s undergoing cancer treatment. We now know, however, that stress management does far more than dampen the psychological effects of stress. Reference Link

Patients who have learned stress management techniques live longer and have less cancer recurrence. This has been best demonstrated in breast cancer. Reference Link

The reasons that stress contributes so much to cancer are still under investigation. There is however very interesting new research emerging using medications called beta blockers that block the effects of  stress on peripheral tissues. These studies are beginning to provide evidence that hormones and neurotransmitters associated with stress might make cancer cells more invasive and normal tissues more permissive to cancerous invasion. Reference Link

Stress can also make other healthy choices more difficult. Many people have also experienced the frustration of what is referred to as “emotional eating” Basically what happens is that when you are stressed  you are less able to make healthy eating choices. The dietary changes that tend to follow are not generally conducive to health. The exact reasons for this are still under investigation but it would not surprise me if there were many reasons contributing to such a pervasive problem.

Have I convinced you yet that stress management is important? If so there are many options available. Some of the most popular are:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness
  • Social Support
  • Journaling
  • Prayer or other spiritual practices
  • Exercise
  • Humor
  • Pet Therapy
  • Music Therapy

The important thing is finding a technique that you can use when you feel stressed to make yourself fell better and leave you feeling refreshed and more able to see your problems as challenges you can handle rather than insurmountable disasters. So experiment and try new things. You don’t have to limit yourself to the list above, it is just a starting place.

 An important note is that alcohol and other substances that temporarily numb psychological distress do not give the above benefits and in many cases do the opposite.

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