By David S. Rosenthal, M.D.
Medical Director, Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Henry K. Oliver Professor of Hygiene, Harvard University
Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School
Director of Harvard Universty health Services
Past President, American Cancer Society
Stress is familiar to everyone and especially to patients with cancer, either those currently being treated for cancer or those who are survivors, whether for one month, five years or longer. Stress may be associated with worsening of a stomach ache, a pounding heart, a dry mouth, insomnia or worsening of the chemotherapy induced nausea. The body’s physical reaction is the result of a stress response.
Cancer is or can be a major stressor in life. There are a number of interventions within the domain of mind/body medicine that can reduce stress and improve one’s life-style. Prior to the diagnosis of cancer, some individuals handled stress by simple daily maneuvers of taking a quiet walk, getting a massage, listening to music or working out on the treadmill; others did not do anything to cope. The cancer diagnosis may be disruptive to the daily routine and it does take a more focused action to develop ongoing stress management strategies. There are a number of relaxation techniques that neutralize stress by producing a calming effect. One can ease anxiety, slow down a heart rate and reduce blood pressure by practicing a relaxation technique such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, muscle relaxation and/or bio-feedback. These mind/body techniques have been researched by a number of investigators and the term “relaxation response” was coined in the 1970’s. Focusing your awareness on the moment at hand and not allowing your thoughts to drift into the past or the future, a technique known as “mindfulness,” allows one to elicit the relaxation response. Whether the relaxation response is induced by mindfulness, breathing exercises, yoga, massage therapy, reiki or bio-feedback, the mind/body connection is enhanced and stress reduction can be the result. Mind/body medicine is one of the five major domains that make up what is classified by the National Institutes of Health/National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine as “Complementary and Alternative Medicine.” The Center defines mind/body medicine as implementing “a variety of techniques designed to enhance the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms. (nccam.nih.gov/health/whatiscam/#4. 2004)
Clinical research trials support the effectiveness of these non-pharmacological therapies by reducing the patient’s burden of the cancer illness and by the beneficial effect it has on your life. Symptoms of depression, chronic cancer pain and insomnia can be reduced and self-esteem can be improved. Mind/body techniques can act to improve coping skills through educational, behavioral or psychodynamic approaches.
You have an opportunity to select what fits your own lifestyle and cultural background. But once you have selected technique(s), begin to practice on a regular basis. For example, learning the relaxation response and setting goals should be done on a daily basis. Stress management when practiced together with good nutrition and physical activity on a regular basis will reduce anxiety, reduce mild depression, raise self-esteem and prime your immune system, which could lead to secondary cancer prevention and improved quality of life.