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Managing Emotional Distress During Cancer

A disease such as cancer is often one of the most stressful experiences of a person’s life. Coping with cancer can be more challenging with added stress from work, family, or financial concerns. Everyday stress can also make dealing with a cancer diagnosis more difficult. Stress causes cancer as chronic stress may weaken the immune system, causing other health problems and decreasing feelings of well-being.

You and your family are under tremendous pressure to cope effectively with the treatments, side effects, and anxieties accompanying your diagnosis. You may feel some distress during your cancer journey, including common feelings of sadness, vulnerability, and fear of recurrence or death, to more disabling problems, like intense anxiety, clinical depression, or panic.

Emotional distress can impact your ability to carry out daily activities and participate actively in your treatment. It can also make physical symptoms more severe or even affect the treatment outcome. It takes time to accept the cancer diagnosis and understand what it will mean for both you and your family. 

Stages of Emotional Distress?


You may feel that “no one understands” what you are going through. It is essential to gather as much information as possible and find someone to talk to who has been through treatment.


You may feel overwhelmed, even unable to manage daily responsibilities. This is a normal reaction and often reflects the strain on your physical and emotional energy as you manage treatment and cope with your situation. Many people find a support group very helpful at this time as you can learn from others about what helps them.


You may feel “abandoned” by your healthcare team or other supportive people involved during treatment, or you may feel anxious about the cancer returning. Throughout this time, you and your caregivers may find that a support group can be beneficial in making the transition from being ill to living well after cancer.

Anger is also a normal and healthy response to having cancer. Expressing anger productively and thoughtfully can prevent emotions from building up and help prevent more serious emotional problems. If you are concerned about anger for yourself or your loved one, please find someone to talk to, such as a family friend, a mental health professional or a pastoral counselor.

Positive Attitude,  Optimism and Hope in Cancer

In terms of cancer, successful coping is not necessarily about having a positive outlook or striving for a cheery disposition. In essence, you should aim to develop realistic expectations about your illness so you can make good decisions about care and not be pressured to be blindly optimistic. A feeling of optimism during the cancer experience should not exclude sadness, anger, sorrow, grief and hurt. Instead, studies seem to underscore the importance of optimism about quality of life. In research studies, more optimistic patients were less depressed and more likely to follow treatment.

A hopeful person can experience a wide range of negative and positive emotions, yet through all of the difficulties, will try to move forward in life. Hope is something that you should gain from your surroundings. If more prolonged survival is not possible, it is reasonable to hope for different meaningful outcomes — like a peaceful death or resolving family conflicts.

Stress management strategies

Although you can try to reduce stress in your life, you cannot altogether avoid stress. However, stress management strategies can help you feel more relaxed and less anxious. The following are tips to help reduce stress:

Exercise regularly

Moderate exercise such as a 30-minute walk several times a week can help lower stress. Talk with your doctor before starting an exercise schedule. Learn suggestions and tips for physical activity.

Spend time outside

If possible, take a walk out in a park or other natural setting. Sunlight, fresh air, and the sounds of nature can help brighten a person’s day.

Schedule social activities

Make time to socialize with family or friends, which is an excellent way to lower stress.

Eat well

Maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough rest will give you more energy to deal with daily stress. Learn more about nutrition during treatment. Eat food rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins. It will give you energy required to do your daily activities.

Get plenty of sleep

Life is busy, and some people may think that rest is indulgent. But sleep is essential to help the body stay healthy and heal. Try to get seven or more hours of sleep each night. Naps during the day can also help. If you have difficulty sleeping, talk with your health care team about ways to manage sleeping problems.

Join a support group

Support groups allow you to talk about your feelings and fears with others who share and understand your experiences. You can also speak with a trusted friend, a counselor, or a social worker. Learn more about support groups.

Schedule daily relaxing time

Spend time doing an activity you find comfortable, such as reading a book, gardening, or listening to music.

Do things you enjoy

Eat at your favorite restaurant or watch your favorite television show. Laughter reduces stress, so consider seeing a funny movie or reading a humorous book to help cope with stress.

Write in a journal

Writing about the stresses and events in your life provides a private way to express your feelings. Learn more about the power of writing. Learn a new hobby. Engaging in a new and challenging activity gives you a sense of accomplishment and provides a distraction from daily worries. Examples include taking an art class or playing a musical instrument.

Better sleep

Physical activity can also help us sleep better. Feeling well rested is very important when you are facing the challenges of cancer. Getting enough sleep may even help you remain hopeful and confident during and after treatment. Try to avoid taking medications in the evening that can make you jittery. Leave your cell phone outside the bedroom and avoid bright screens that can be distracting during the night. Try listening to music that is soothing or to a relaxation or meditation recording when your mind is too busy and keeping sleep away.

Relaxation techniques to reduce stress

Many people learn and practise relaxation techniques to lower stress. You can learn most of them in a few sessions with a counselor. Many hospitals and cancer centers also have classes to teach patients relaxation techniques. Consider doing the following methods daily or at specific stressful times, such as during a medical procedure:

Relaxed or deep breathing

This involves deep, slow breathing while concentrating on filling the lungs and relaxing muscles.

Mental imagery or visualization

This helps you create peaceful and relaxing images in your mind.

Progressive muscle relaxation

This technique involves tightening and then relaxing muscles. Most people start at either the toes or the head and progressively relax all the muscles across the body.


With this technique, you can learn to relax your mind and concentrate on an inner sense of calm. These practices can help lessen stress, anxiety or anger, allowing you to feel calmer and more in control of what’s happening in your life.


This technique can teach you to relax and control your body’s response to stress by paying attention to signals from the body.


Yoga focuses the mind on breathing and posture to promote relaxation and reduce fatigue. He helps cope with stress in a very positive way. 

Be positive

Having a positive attitude does not mean you have to be happy or cheerful all the time. It is positive to just be aware and accept your feelings, even if you are worried, depressed or angry. Feeling that you have to hide your feelings all the time can drain your energy and stop you from talking about fears and feelings that are real and that deserve to be talked about.


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