Lucy O'Donnell

Lucy O'Donnell

Cancer Is a Teacher


Stress and Cancer

Does stress have an impact on Cancer and if so, how do we manage it?

Posted Dec 16, 2014

In this time of constant motion, running at full speed, being permanently on call and losing our Sundays – it is no wonder we are stressed.  Many studies show that yes, there is indeed a connection between stress and cancer.  

People with cancer have elevated stress hormone levels in their bodies, which heightens metastasis and cancer activity.  Research has shown that stress hormones such as cortisol can negatively influence the Cox-2 inflammatory pathway - an enzyme which lies behind inflammation - and is a known precursor to certain cancers and other illnesses.

Anxiety, stress and worry manifest themselves when the body releases adrenalin which raises the heart rate in order to pump blood to the muscles.  Messages are sent through the neural pathways to those muscles to tense up and get ready for action.  Your breathing changes from the stomach to shallow breathing from the chest (which is not proper breathing).

According to psychiatrists, the human body is conditioned to deal and cope with six weeks to three months of stress (depending on the person).  Symptoms of stress are anxiety, low mood, wanting to hide under the duvet, insomnia, gastric problems, stomach aches, loss of bladder control, loss or increased appetite, psychosomatic symptoms such as eczema, palpitations, headaches, excessive thirst, sweating through the hands or head.  

This is the body reacting to stress.  Your cortisol levels are raised, and your body is in a way preparing for battle – tensing up.  That’s why when you are stressed your muscles ache so much and you feel in dire need of a massage.  If these physical symptoms and feelings go on for longer than the few weeks I mentioned, then it is very important that you make profound adjustments to the way you are coping.

Managing stress has shown to significantly increase survival times and here are some ways to do it.  Counteracting stress is not difficult but does require some discipline.


It does not mean you need years of therapy, sometimes just a one-off meeting, or perhaps three or four sessions are enough - just so that you can understand what is going on and address your issues.  With cancer, every area of your life is affected, and you have to accept that your role is now different.  And your role differs depending where you are in the disease: pre-cancer, during treatment, and post treatment.   

You can go down the counselling route at any time during and after your cancer treatment.  It is interesting to know that there are two peaks in referrals to counselling during cancer treatment.  They are at diagnosis and at the end of treatment.


Exercise and fresh air are incredibly important.  Good blood circulation is vital - it improves the circulation of immune cells and oxygenates the blood. We know that exercise is a powerful antidote – it actually changes the chemistry in our body – releasing endorphins into the blood. It helps regulate cortisol (that horrible hormone that gets released in stressful situations).  It helps reduce elevated insulin levels, which create the low sugar environment that encourages the growth and spread of cancer cells.  You see how the great culprit sugar comes up again and again and how it is linked?  I don’t know how many times to say this but cancer (and a host of other illnesses) and sugar are inextricably linked! It is only just recently that the world seems to be waking up to this fact.  Not a moment too soon, but more on this in a future blog.

A brisk walk can really dissipate stress and lift the mood, but sometimes it can be quite hard to take exercise during some of the treatment.  When I felt really rotten and weak, I just used to do a few rounds of stretches in my room, to keep my circulation moving.  I used to lie with my legs up the wall to help move my blood around - this is actually a yoga position, believe it or not.  Getting friends to take you for small walks or strolls can be enough.  You mustn’t feel you have to really push yourself - that is not a good idea.  The point is to get out and about in the fresh air, no matter how little, and oxygenate the blood.


A few years before I was diagnosed, I learned to breathe.  That was when I started yoga and mediation.  At the time of diagnosis I put this into action.  It really does work.  Empty your lungs (i.e. breathe out) to prepare.  Then breathe in slowly for five seconds through your nose, and then breathe out slowly for five seconds.  Do this about ten times and repeat two or three time during the day.  You can use this method to relax yourself, any time and anywhere.  I used it a lot in radiotherapy.

Very recently, my father told me that that when he had to go into hospital for an operation which he was worried about, he remembered me telling him about breathing, and how it had worked so well for him.  Such a simple mechanism, he thought!


Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies are often used alongside conventional cancer treatment not only to help reduce stress levels but also to help boost physical and emotional health, reduce side effects of treatment and help you sleep better.


Massage is one of the oldest forms of complementary therapies.

I found massage to be intensely relieving.  I would instruct the masseur as to how much pressure I wanted, which actually was quite a lot in my case because my muscles were so tensed up, rock hard.  My body ached so much during treatment, that along with yoga and short walks, massages contributed immensely to my general physical comfort.

Other than the obvious effects of massage (de-stressing, muscles relaxing etc), it is extremely good for you because it gets blood flowing around your body, thereby improving your circulation – which we know is really beneficial.

Obviously the masseur must be made aware of where you have had surgery and what condition your health is in and treat you accordingly.  But many masseurs (outside the cancer world) will refuse even to touch you if they know you are undergoing chemotherapy.   They do not understand chemotherapy (and why should they?); and they do not make any allowances for it.  It can be extremely frustrating arriving somewhere to have a massage, only to find that they won’t give it to you. So you must check that the masseur knows your current health situation to avoid disappointment.


Acupuncture has therapeutic benefits, including pain relief and alleviation from nausea caused by chemotherapy. I did not use acupuncture because my whole treatment was, and still is, based around needles – and I hate needles!


I have always loved reflexology.  I am very lucky that the place where I have my cancer treatment has a reflexologist who comes around when you are having treatment and administers it. I find it one of the most relaxing treatments.  I battle with insomnia, but when I have reflexology I feel deeply relaxed and often fall asleep – much to the amazement of everybody! Some or all of these therapies are often offered as part of your care in hospital wards, community health services, and various cancer charities. 


One of my friends, who is a yoga teacher, used to come around and give me very mild yoga lessons. I cannot stress enough how beneficial I found this - from the exercise point of view and spiritually.  It is a fantastic way to stay calm and centered; to teach yourself to truly relax and focus and be in the moment.  All of these things, I am convinced, have helped me no end.  I used to practice yoga before my diagnosis and I still do.

Just by doing a few easy yoga poses in your bedroom, you can get your circulation going, stretching and toning your muscles.  It gives you the effect of having a massage - but for free!

Meditation & Mindfulness

It’s not just what you put in your mouth that is important , but also what you put in your mind.

You must have faith in your treatment, fill your heart with love, allow yourself to be loved and get rid of fear.  Fear has a negative impact on your well being.

As with yoga, I found, and still find, meditation invaluable. You can meditate almost anywhere – at actual classes or at your desk, in your bedroom, in the bath, on the bus, and so forth.  You can adapt it to suit you – that is the beauty of it.

Lucy O’Donnell is the author of “Cancer Is My Teacher”  - a practical, physical and emotional guide from diagnosis to post recovery, including ideas for family and friends.

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