For those who are not diagnosed with this condition, just saying the word out loud to yourself highlights many negative connotations associated with it.
Depression. Anxiety. Loneliness. Weakness.
We all consider the undesirable aspects associated with cancer and think to ourselves how lucky we are not to have that added stress in our life. But what about those who are diagnosed with cancer?
Life can already be quite overwhelming when considering the financial strains, family events and various appointments scheduled into each day. But then add cancer into the mix and what do you get? You get a situation that can be very debilitating both physically, socially and emotionally, and can cause an array of adverse behaviors such as excessive alcohol consumption, sedentary behavior and smoking.
There is some evidence to suggest that elevated stress levels heighten the inflammatory response associated with stress hormones which may be directly related to cancer development and growth, however, there is an abundance of research showing an in-direct link between stress and cancer growth due to the adverse behaviors mentioned above. Thus, having the ability to conquer stress, identify the best way for you to deal with stress, and to become resilient to it will positively impact the management of your cancer and the fighting process.
So we know that stress and anxiety are typically elevated in people with cancer, and we know through available research that we need to lower or eliminate these stress levels to stop risky adverse behaviors associated with stress, but how do we go about doing that?
Recently at our training studio we began an exercise program for clients diagnosed with cancer called Lift For Life. Our trainers discussed the idea of stress and anxiety with our cancer clients and what that means to them. During our discussion we identified many situations which cause stress in their lives, both related and not related to cancer. Some of these situations were:
- Negative thoughts
- Feeling lonely
- Feeling as though they have no one to talk to
- Cancer Doctor appointments and the negative connotations associated with them
- Waiting for results
- Feeling as though people are sick of them talking about their cancer
After identifying what causes heightened stress levels, we brainstormed ideas we could implement to help overcome such stresses:
- Joining cancer education groups and classes
- Communication with family and friends
- Joining stress management, meditation or relaxation classes
- Download stress relief applications
We recognize that stress factors in to a large degree. In the treatment of this deadly disease, and while we see the need for exercise and nutrition, there must also be a focus on improving the lifestyle habits and the personal ability of the person to be mentally healthy as well. Far too many programs focus on just the physical component or treat the physical symptoms, neglecting the importance of addressing the psychological and emotional needs to assist the body in healing itself. This is why our program is designed around exercise and education. There is an abundance of research illustrating the physical, health and emotional benefits of exercise for those suffering and over-coming cancer. Cancer brings with it atrophy, osteopenia, increased risk of cardiovascular disease and falling. The benefits of exercise and stress reduction can help alleviate many of these ancillary negative conditions associated with cancer. Some of these benefits include:
- Regulation of blood flow (reducing your risk of blood clots)
- Improved muscular and bone strength/health
- Reduced risk of falling
- Improvement and maintaining of functional capacity and independence
- Reduced risk of secondary cardiovascular diseases and co-morbidities associated with cancer
- Improved mental status
- Improved quality of life.
After the Lift For Life brainstorming session I had with my cancer clients I was surprised to find that no one had identified what I perceived as being the most important elements in overcoming stress and anxiety. Exercise and rhythmic breathing. Of course once I mentioned this, all clients agreed that these were both extremely important.
It is at this point you may be thinking “yes I know about the importance of exercise and the benefits associated both physically and mentally, but what has breathing got to do with it?”
Why is breathing so important?
When I think of someone being stressed or anxious, I picture someone hyperventilating into a brown paper back and trying to slow down their breathing. Most people who are stressed are stuck in a constant state of over breathing and hyperventilation. Often when people are stressed they are told to “take a deep breath and relax”. This is, however, quite problematic as this action reinforces anxiety and stress symptoms by overstimulating the sympathetic nervous system, and eventually causes habitual over breathing actions. Even when the stress is no longer present, a person will continue to breathe this way as this is how they have taught themselves to breath. Dr James Mercola (of the Game Changer) emphasizes this further when he stated “When you feel tense and anxious, the sympathetic fight-or-flight aspect of your nervous system turns on, quickening your breathing and increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormone production. Uncontrolled, rapid, chest-oriented respiration can actually initiate your sympathetic nervous system — even if no other stress factors are present — locking you into a state of breathing-induced stress”. Hence, learning how to breathe slowly and softly through the nose is critical.
What can I do to start breathing better and help reduce my stress and anxiety?
There are many breathing exercises which can help to reduce stress levels, improve your health and calm your body. A simple breathing exercise which can be done anywhere and has been reported to help reduce stress and anxiety symptoms is as follows:
- Inhale through your nose for 5 seconds
- Hold for 5 seconds
- Exhale through your nose for 5 seconds
- Repeat 5 times.
- Once completed make sure you continue to breath normally through your nose and not your mouth otherwise you won’t be able to crack this over breathing habit you have taught yourself.
The 4-7-8 breathing technique taught by Dr Andrew Weil is also quite effective in reducing stress levels and regulating your breathing.
We must acknowledge the damage that stress can cause on our health and when we are already in a state of poor health, a little bit more than normal is enough to create more problems. Stress cannot be avoided for it is something we will all encounter at many times in our lives. However, being stuck in an extended state of stress will do serious damage to your body. Learning different strategies and having tools and resources to combat the symptoms associated with stress and anxiety are essential in the prevention and treatment of cancer as well as all kinds of other health problems and diseases.
Cancer Council Australia