How to Manage Stress While Undergoing Breast Cancer Treatment
Breast cancer is the primary cause of cancer mortality in women, impacting millions around the globe. It's estimated that 1 in 8 women in the United States will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.
Stress is both a risk factor for and byproduct of breast cancer, and its management is critical to protecting both the mental health and physical outcomes of breast cancer patients.
Treatment & mental health
Life is full of stressful situations for everyone. A full 33 percent of adults say they experience extreme stress, while 77 percent say stress negatively affects their health.
Medical problems are notorious for increasing anxiety, and cancer diagnoses, in particular, can cause long-term chronic stress and mental health issues. A diagnosis of breast cancer commonly invokes an array of emotions, from sorrow and despair to anger and denial, all resulting in long-term worry.
Stress manifests in many different ways: changes in appetite, muscle tension, increased heart rate, sleep changes, irritability, difficulty concentrating, lack of interest, headaches, gastrointestinal changes, teeth grinding, reduced libido, feeling faint or dizzy, menstrual changes, and feelings of nervousness and tension. It's good to note these kinds of symptoms in a journal, so you're able to provide useful details when you next visit your doctor.
The impact of stress
In a 2016 study, stress was found to impact biological endocrine and immune function in postsurgical breast cancer patients, resulting in long-term negative effects on the disease recovery process.
Chronic stress can have a number of consequences:
- It can increase angiogenesis, cell proliferation and migration.
- It can increase secretion of stress-related hormones cortisol and catecholamines.
- It can negatively impact immune function by decreasing levels of anti-inflammatory and protective cells such as natural killer and cytotoxic-T cells, and increasing circulating levels of pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines. These proteins can negatively affect tumor cells and promote metastasis.
Even after cancer treatment, mental health effects can continue. Breast cancer survivors often experience depression and fear of recurrence or metastasis, and residual pain and discomfort can exacerbate symptoms. Post-traumatic stress after breast cancer is not uncommon, and it can significantly decrease quality of life and increase the risk of recurrence.
Research shows that breast cancer survivors who experience traumatic or stressful events have a greater risk for relapse, while those with strong social support have a significantly lower risk for breast cancer mortality.
Stress management in the treatment process
Stress management strategies have been shown to be helpful and for best results should be learned and implemented as soon as possible after a breast cancer diagnosis.
A 2015 study found that women who were provided with stress management techniques experienced less depression and an improved quality of life in the first year after diagnosis, as well as significantly less-persistent depressive symptoms in the subsequent 15 years.
A 2018 meta-analysis found mindfulness-based stress reduction to be an effective strategy. It supported improved physiological and cognitive function and emotional well-being, and it minimized distress and depression.
Women can find peace during stressful times through methods including visualization, mindfulness, meditation, counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, a healthy lifestyle—no smoking or drinking alcohol, eating a balanced diet—and discovering physical activities such as yoga or tai chi. Deep-breathing techniques, such as 4-7-8, increase the heart rate variable (not the heart rate itself) and thus reduce stress.
Muscle relaxation and self-massage also are beneficial. A 2013 study found relaxation training can reduce stress and anxiety during chemotherapy, as well as improve postoperative results in breast cancer patients.
Seek help & support
Discuss stress management with your doctor from the outset. If you feel unable to cope with stress, or your management techniques aren’t working for you, ask about alternative methods and helpful medical treatments.
Finding love, support and laughter with others can be immensely helpful to anyone suffering a health crisis. Opening up about fears and anxieties, joining a cancer support group or an online forum for survivors, and simply spending time letting go with friends are all elements of human connection—tools to help reduce stress and source comfort.
Reading about other people's experiences with breast cancer and learning from their recollections may also help. It's important to keep telling yourself that you’re not in this alone.
Breast cancer is challenging enough without the added impact pressure of chronic stress. Have a plan to minimize it early, stay positive, and rely on coping techniques and self-care.