13 Ways to Manage Stress With Metastatic Cancer

Chances are, you could use a few tips to de-stress and feel your best. Here, strategies from women who have been thriving despite metastatic cancer.

Kathleen Engel

Feelings of anxiety can strike at any time. But it's important to manage your stress, which can weaken your immune system and lower your defenses when fighting metastatic cancer. Follow these tips to stay healthy and stress free.

1. Create your own healing space.

Wendy S. Harpham, MD, author of Happiness in a Storm and a 21-year survivor of chronic non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, painted the walls of her study bright rose and the doors grape purple—colors that make her feel happy and energized: "Surround yourself with images and inspirational sayings that help you feel loved and remind you of joyful relationships and times."

2. Get a handle on your treatment.

"It's helpful to know what you're doing and why," says Katherine O'Brien, a Chicago-based editor who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) in 2009. "Learning as much as I could helped. I went from being a passive patient to asking good questions and playing an active role in my care."

3. Reward yourself after scans.

"Scanxiety" got you in its grip? A little pampering or fun time can be just the thing to lift your spirits. "I treat myself after scans," says Katherine. "A nice lunch, a shopping trip. It's always a relief to get those over with!"

4. Practice gratitude.

"By committing to writing down at least one thing each day that made you smile, laugh or feel uplifted, you open your eyes to the good things that happen in your life during tough times," says Dr. Harpham, an internist. "Remembering all that is right in your world helps you find happiness in a storm."

5. Don't forget to laugh!

"My sense of humor is an important coping mechanism," says Katherine, who jokes with her medical team when she has the chance. "If I can laugh at something, I am less afraid of it."

6. Absolve yourself

"There's the sense you did something wrong," says Katherine. "You didn't have [a screening]. Perhaps you ate the wrong food or didn't take care of yourself. Cancer is not your fault!"

7. Treat yourself on treatment days.

"It's always good to have something to look forward to," says Katherine. When she was scheduled for a month of radiation treatments, she bought 30 scratch-off lottery tickets to count down the days. "I wish I could say I hit the jackpot, but it was something to make the day a little better."

8. Hang with others who "get" you.

Find a local support group or go online for support. "I attend conferences organized by Breastcancer.org and Metastatic Breast Cancer Network," says Katherine. "At these events, you don't have to explain anything to anyone. And no one gives you the 'pity eyes.' "

9. Find your mantra.

A mantra can be nothing more complicated than a saying or expression that gets you through. "Life is good, even when challenging or painful," is one of Dr. Harpham's. Another one that lifts her up: "It matters less what I feel than what I do with what I feel."

10. Spend time with family, especially kids, if that's possible.

Why? You won't have to "talk cancer." "I'm close with my six siblings and my many nieces and nephews," says Katherine, who often watches her twin brother's children. "There is always a cross-country meet, soccer or baseball game to attend, birthday parties, graduations, first Communions, etc."

11. Keep perspective.

"If I find myself worrying too much, I think of the worst thing that could happen," says Katherine. "I already have cancer. So for me, the worst thing is a drug could stop working. But if that happened, I have many other drugs I can try."

12. Update your hobbies.

What activities bring you happiness? Playing the violin makes Dr. Harpham feel good. "Happiness can be elusive when in the storm of cancer. Consider joyful activities that are still available, such as listening to music, watching comedies or sports events, baking, reading or playing with a pet."

13. Soak up the love and caring.

"Oftentimes, illness encourages people to express love that has been there all the time," says Dr. Harpham. Display the gifts and cards you get, she suggests. Create a simple "guest book" for friends who visit you to sign, and take regular moments to appreciate the love coming your way.

April 2013