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Grit & Grace: Does Stress Really Affect Cancer?

Did you know that April is national Stress Awareness Month? Did you know that was a thing? I didn’t. I couldn’t tell you why April was chosen to represent stress. Maybe it’s because (at least here in Delaware), April holds the last unpredictable push of winter that has overstayed its welcome, and everyone feels on edge waiting for sunshine. Or…it’s probably because April is tax month. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about the ways we all are affected by stress, but also how detrimental stress can be for cancer patients.

So much of cancer treatment is dealing with the details, and the unpredictability can be overwhelming. A patient lost her insurance in the middle of treatment. She couldn’t stop treatment, but she certainly couldn’t afford to pay the tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket it would cost to continue treatment. Another patient’s side effects were so severe that she couldn’t function. She had no quality of life, but if she stopped treatment the cancer would grow. Another patient’s co-pay was so high that he decided to sell his house so he could afford to pay it. So many patients become so distraught over their change in appearance, hair loss, weight gain, dry skin, etc. They don’t recognize themselves, and somehow their identity becomes rooted in their disease. Some patients have no family or friends to help them or even check on them. Others aren’t able to continue work through treatment, and have no way to pay their everyday bills. I could list hundreds of other things that plague cancer patients, but the point is that so much more than the actual disease causes stress.

What is stress?

First of all, stress is normal. Everyone experiences stress from time to time. You could even try to see stress as an ally and appreciate your body’s ability to recognize and handle external risks and threats. When your body experiences physical, mental, or emotional pressure, it releases stress hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine. These stress hormones raise your blood pressure and heart rate which may allow you to act with greater strength and speed to manage or escape whatever threat is perceived.

That actually sounds good, right? Who doesn’t want superhuman strength to save the world! But the reality is that sometimes you can’t manage or escape the threat. And stress becomes distress. And even when an entirely healthy person experiences long-term, intense stress that they cannot control, their body turns against them. Chronic stress can cause digestive issues, fertility problems and a weakened immune system, as well as increased depression and anxiety.

Stress and Cancer

Technically, cancer attacks the physical body. As a very general definition, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. Cells that are old and damaged usually die off and are replaced by new ones, but cancer develops when those old cells don’t die. They start multiplying and growing, usually forming a tumor that tries to take over a specific area.

But anyone who has had cancer or experiences a love one with cancer knows that the emotional and mental toll it takes may even be worse than the physical issues. Combine the physical, emotional and social effects of this disease and it is the perfect cocktail of stress.

There is no real evidence that stress can CAUSE cancer; researchers keep trying to find a connection but it just isn’t there. But according to the National Cancer Institute, research does show that stress can affect a tumor’s ability to grow and spread. Remember that hormone that is released to give you superhuman strength to handle your stressful situation, norepinephrine? Research shows that norepinephrine can promote the formation of new blood vessels that tumors need to grow as well as the spreading of the disease (metastasis) to other parts of the body.

Stress Management

The good news is that research also shows that patients who develop good coping skills for stress have better symptom management, reduced levels of anxiety and depression, and just a better overall quality of life. So in honor of Stress Awareness Month, why not take give one of these a try:

  • Meditation Training-relaxation and stillness do not always come naturally. Meditation training can guide and equip you to take the time you need to relax and manage your stress
  • Counseling-one on one therapy allows you to personalize your experience because the things you are feeling and undergoing are valid. You may need a personalized plan to help you cope.
  • Support Groups-surrounding yourself with others who are experience the same thing can be very empowering.
  • Medication for depression and anxiety can be valuable and vital in dealing with stress.
  • Yoga-exercise in general strengthens your body and releases endorphins. Yoga often incorporates a meditative aspect; therefore, you can strengthen your body and quiet your mind at the same time.
  • Education-knowing what resources are available to you can alleviate stress, especially regarding financial matters. Every organization should have a social worker available for you. A social worker can evaluate your situation and provide the needed resources accordingly.

Helpful Tools and Resources

Specifically for cancer patients, we have so many resources to support you. Here at Tunnell Cancer Center, we have multiple licensed counselors, certified life coaches, and a social worker on staff to serve our patients and their caregivers free of charge. They can help you develop a plan to reach your goals and help you better understand your emotions. You can call Clare Wilson here at TCC to help get you started: (302) 645-3087.

The Cancer Support Community, Delaware, a support organization for cancer patients and their families, has located its local office above the cancer center. Its free programs are facilitated by licensed and experienced psychotherapists. Staff members of The Wellness Community and the cancer center work together to engage patients in these programs, such as yoga, meditation, “Look Good Feel Better” program, and support groups. You can reach The Wellness Community at (302) 645-9150, or online at www.cancersupportdelaware.org.

Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition, another local support services and education provider, can be reached at (302) 644-6844 or online at www.debreastcancer.org. Among its services is the Peer Mentor Support Program, which provides free one-on-one support and education to newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.

The American Cancer Society also offers support services that you may be interested in. They can be reached at (800) 227-2345 or online at www.cancer.org.

One last thing…I think it is important to note that “stressed” spelled backwards is “desserts.”

Amanda Gross

Amanda Aris

Amanda Aris is the Cancer Care Coordinator at Beebe Healthcare’s Tunnell Cancer Center. As part of the psychosocial services team at TCC, she navigates patients through the specialty pharmacy process of obtaining oral chemotherapies, coordinates all referrals to outside institutions, and works closely with the cancer survivorship programs and events. Although she has earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and Secondary Education, she previously worked with cancer clinical trials as a Certified Clinical Research Professional in Philadelphia. Amanda is Baltimore born and an avid