Tackle your stressful response to any thoughts about cancer
Life is quite simply stressful. But how we deal with the stress that life brings us can have an enormous impact on our health – even when it comes to life-changing conditions such as cancer.
On 4 February it is World Cancer Day, and the focus is on the importance of early cancer detection and screening. And rightly so. The earlier cancer is detected, the higher the chances of successful treatment and full recovery. And yet cancer continues to cast a shadow.
Why are we so fearful of cancer?
It may seem like it is everywhere – and cancer rates are in fact up. Much of that is down to improved early detection, but the world population is also ageing, and together with that, the number of people who get cancer increases.
However, cancer is not the end of the road as it was for the majority of people living a century ago. It is worth remembering that cancer was responsible for less than 10% of deaths in South Africa in 2017, the last year for which Statistics South Africa has released information.
Yet, our attitudes still often seem stuck in the 1930s – many continue to see a cancer diagnosis as a death sentence. It is sometimes also this fear that drives people to avoid initial screenings, despite early detection being so crucial.
Stress and cancer risk
It should come as no surprise that the fear of cancer is a stress factor in itself. A cancer diagnosis, whatever the outlook, can make people feel overwhelmed, isolated and fearful of the future. And the same goes for the people around them.
While there is a strong genetic component to cancer risk, lifestyle can also play a huge factor in its actual development. Genetics may predispose you, but how you choose to live can be the trigger. Putting the immune system under strain can impact its ability to detect and fight off cancerous cells.
Not only does stress place the immune system under enormous pressure, but many of the most widespread stress-relief mechanisms – such as smoking, drinking and overeating – actually contribute to one’s cancer risk. These unhealthy activities can place a heavy load on an overtaxed immune system, limiting its ability to deal with invaders.
Putting stress in its place
It’s ironic that while stress is bad for cancer, cancer also causes stress. That’s why it’s so important to manage stress, whether it’s you or a loved one affected by cancer. Effective stress-relief measures can help in coping with the initial diagnosis, providing the strength to consider treatment options and lifestyle changes. They can also help you deal with the emotional aspects and find the courage to maintain a positive outlook.
Here are some steps for managing stress:
- See a therapist or counsellor to discuss your feelings around a cancer diagnosis, and to get help in dealing with family and loved ones.
- Make physical exercise an absolute priority – it does wonders for the body and is a mood-lifter. Join a sports club, yoga class or anything that requires your presence and commitment. It’s easy to say ‘no’ if you don’t have to answer to anyone else.
- Identify and regularly practise your own type of stress-relief, whatever it may be: building jigsaw puzzles, meditation, tai chi, hiking, yoga, a hobby, a pub quiz.
- Give the body what it needs to fight this disease – a healthy diet, regular sleep, no cigarettes, and very little alcohol.
- Find a doctor you can trust and follow their advice. Stay away from unverifiable information on the internet – much of it is either scaremongering or empty promises.
- Spend time on your spiritual needs – whatever they may be. These are the things that sustain us in times of pressure.
- Acknowledge that cancer is also difficult for the people around the patient. Spend quality time with loved ones and invest in these relationships, especially if they nurture you on your journey.
- Contact CANSA at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about support groups in your area. There is a big variety, dealing with every aspect of the cancer journey. This can be a safe space for sharing information and exchanging tips on various coping strategies. Also hear inspiring stories of the journeys of cancer survivors.