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How to Combat Stress During Cancer – and Always

By Cheryl Beighle, MD

When we talk about cancer, we often talk about stress, too. A cancer diagnosis – in and of itself – can cause considerable stress. Plus, there’s the existing stress of day-to-day living, especially in our present world and culture. So, how can you navigate through cancer treatment and keep your stress level as low as possible? Here are some tips:

Good nutrition. You’ve heard: “You are what you eat.” It’s true. When we’re stressed, we commonly reach for “comfort foods” that are high in sugar or carbs. They may help in the short run. But, in the long run, this isn’t the wisest nutritional path. Stick to a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. You’ll be feeding your body well. And, the added nutrients and antioxidants can help your body fight cancer, too. If you’d like additional help from a nutritionist or oncology dietitian, ask your care team if those providers are available at your treatment center.

Exercise. Being outside and moving your body – these are natural stress busters. They decrease your biochemical stress response. But, exercise is also a natural mood booster. It doesn’t matter which activity you enjoy, just get moving! You might even consider joining a yoga classes for a new experience in exercise and relaxation. Sometimes, cancer treatment can create physical limitations that impede movement. Talk to your care team. A referral to physical or occupational therapist might help to get you moving.

Sleep. Sleep disruption and stress go hand in hand. As you become more and more sleep deprived, stress is harder to handle. And, that will just stress you out more. Your best bet is to maintain good sleep hygiene: No TV or computer for a half-hour before bed, have a cool, dark, comfortable place to sleep and keep consistent to-bed and wake times.

Connect with others. People with a strong support group are more likely to do better during cancer treatment and live fuller lives. Talk to your friends. Reach out to others. And, don’t be afraid to ask for support. If your friend asked you for support, wouldn’t you feel honored to help? If so, allow others that same honor. If you want to increase your support circle during your cancer journey, attend a cancer support group in your area. Support groups aren’t for everyone. Individual counseling may be a better fit. Ask your care team for recommendations.

Learn a new relaxation technique. Many of us don’t know how to relax. We use distractions like TV, sports or reading to relax. But, sometimes, when your world is disrupted – like with a cancer diagnosis – you need more. Yoga, breathing, meditation, guided imagery and self-hypnosis are examples of relaxation tools to help you through stressful times. You can learn them from an expert, or through internet resources, or even using a guided imagery CD. Or, try the 4-7-8 Breathing Exercise. You’ll find your nervous system is more balanced and you’re more relaxed.

If a cancer diagnosis is the “one more thing” that causes you or your family to feel overwhelmed, talk to your care team. Ask them which support groups, behavioral health or the social work programs are available to you.

Dr. Cheryl Beighle received her medical degree from the University of Washington School of Medicine. She completed a pediatrics residency at the Cleveland Clinic – including a fourth year as chief resident. She’s completed a fellowship in integrative medicine, where she studied complementary and alternative medical practices, at the University of Arizona in 2003.

Dr. Beighle integrates complementary practices into cancer treatment in her integrative medicine consults. She uses nutrition, lifestyle counseling, hypnosis, biofeedback and supplements to support cancer patients. She also sees patients after their treatment is complete to teach them how lifestyle can help prevent cancer reoccurrence.


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