While researchers have not determined whether stress is directly linked to the development of colon cancer, it’s pretty clear that getting diagnosed can cause stress, and anxiety can continue through treatment and beyond. But don’t let being afraid of being afraid stop you in your tracks. Practicing relaxation techniques, exercising and connecting with others helps you navigate through the sometimes fearsome waters of cancer treatment — and can also have surprising health benefits.
Use Mind and Body Together
Experts counsel that you should put your mind to work to help you get through the scary parts — and, let’s face it, there are plenty of scary parts to cancer. It’s not just about putting on a Pollyannaish attitude, though: Relaxation techniques — structured methods for calming your mind and body’s responses to stress — can help you deal with the initial news, calm you during treatment, lessen treatment’s side effects and give you a sense of control over your own healing power.
Deep breathing: When you’re nervous, your breath tends to get shallower — and shallow breathing can make you more anxious in return, because your body doesn’t get as much oxygen. Taking slow, deep breaths can calm your heart and your emotions. Feel your heart racing while in the waiting area of your doctor’s office? Close your eyes and take a deep breath in through your nose, exhale through your mouth while thinking of the number one. Do it again with the number two on the exhale, and repeat until you get to five.
Meditation: Meditation helps you quiet your mind and focus your attention, and it can also boost your immune system. Among the many types, mindful meditation has been most studied in cancer patients. One study found that after seven weeks of meditation, patients had less stress and mood disturbance than those who didn’t meditate.
Sit in a quiet room and focus on the in and out of your breath. If your attention wanders, don’t let that upset you. Just bring the focus back to your breath. If you can’t stop your mind from chattering, focus on a word or phrase (like “I am healing” or “I am calm”).
Hypnotherapy and guided imagery: These are both ways to help you use your imagination, as well as your senses, to help you go into a trancelike state, which will help take your mind off of your tests and treatment and onto something more pleasant. This is an especially good technique to use while you’re going through chemo or radiation.
Several studies have suggested that guided imagery may help manage stress and anxiety, as well as reduce some of the side effects of chemotherapy. One study even found that it may be helpful in preventing anticipatory nausea and vomiting. Use your imagination to fight off the cancer in your mind. You can imagine it literally, watching the healthy cells fight off the cancer cells in your body, or metaphorically, seeing seagulls feasting on bread crumbs on the ocean (the seagulls represent the chemo, the bread crumbs the cancer cells and the ocean your body), explains Jane Ehrman, MEd, CHES, a mind-body medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine.
You can even talk to yourself while you’re in the trance. Statements such as “I am calm, this place is beautiful, I feel better by the moment” not only help ease your mind — research shows that they can boost your immune system and help your body fight off the cancer cells.
Progressive relaxation: Your muscles carry tension — but, surprisingly, tensing them up deliberately can help relax you. This technique uses that paradox to physically relieve anxiety. Bedtime is an excellent place to use it, according to Erhman; it can help you get into a deeply relaxed state. It’s also good for reducing pain.
Lie in a comfortable spot and focus on your right foot. Squeeze the muscles as hard as you can for about eight seconds, then relax them, letting all the tension in the foot go. Then move to your left foot, squeezing and relaxing, then continue up throughout your entire body — your calves, your knees, your thighs, your hips, your lower back and so on — until you’ve reached the top of your head.
Work Out Your Tensions
Even gentle activity is a great way to help manage your mood. Exercise increases endorphins, feel-good chemicals in your brain. And moving during the day will help you sleep better at night, which will decrease your anxiety overall (and keep you stronger during treatment). Some exercises to try:
- Yoga, which combines stretching postures, breathing exercises and meditative practices. It not only calms the mind, it also soothes the body by increasing flexibility and improving muscle tone.
- Tai chi is an ancient Chinese martial art also sometimes called a moving meditation. It uses a series of flowing body movements, called forms, which derive their names from nature, like Wave Hands Like Clouds or Grasping the Bird’s Tail. Tai chi’s movements are gentle to the body and can help decrease stress, improve respiratory function and overall aerobic fitness, and reduce blood pressure.
Connect With Others
Support groups, either online or face-to-face, are a great way to connect with others who are going through similar experiences and help you feel like you’re not alone. Ask your oncologist for a list of local support groups, or go to the American Cancer Society’s online Cancer Survivor’s Network, which has discussion boards and chat rooms for those with colon cancer.
—by Leslie Pepper