5 Ways to Help Relieve Stress During Cancer Treatment

When you're living with cancer, anxiety about your diagnosis, treatment and its possible side effects can often feel overwhelming and can lead to increased levels of stress. Other sources of stress for patients with cancer may include finances and career and can seem as tough to control as the disease itself.

Finding ways to reduce stress can improve your mood and quality of life. One study suggests stress-reduction techniques help patients with cancer manage their fears of medical procedures1.  

Read on for 5 methods to help reduce stress that you can start using today.  

1. Create art

“When you have cancer you’re feeling frustrated and sad—you’re feeling such a wide range of emotions that will come and go and it’s better to help process these emotions with something,” according to Jill Howell, a registered, board-certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor in Stroudsburg, PA, and author of “Color, Draw, Collage: Create Your Way to a Less Stressful Life.”

Creating art, whether it’s doodling in a sketchbook, snapping photos or painting a masterpiece can help you relax. In fact, 75% of people who created art for 45 minutes experienced a drop in levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, according to a study out of Drexel University 2,3

“Art making is this wonderful way of releasing your emotions, thoughts, and feelings about your illness,” Howell says.

Art making can also get your mind off your worries and distract you. “It’s important to have moments where you can just let everything go and let your body fully relax because when your body is fully relaxed, it’s much more open to healing.”

You can start with an adult coloring book, playing with clay, or creating a collage. Rather than worrying about the finished product, simply focus on the process of art-making. 

2. Write

Putting your thoughts down on paper can be an effective way to cope with stress and may even surface solutions to the issues on your mind.

Instead of paying too much attention to sentence structure or grammar, just write down what comes to mind. Make writing a daily habit, even if you only have 10 minutes, and chances are you’ll feel less stressed afterward.

You can keep your thoughts in a journal or rip up the paper afterward which helps you let go of perfectionism and not worry about the content. “Then you know you’re going to rip it up immediately and no one’s ever going to read it,” Howell says. 

3.  Exercise

Whether it’s going for a walk around the block or taking a yoga, Qigong or Tai chi class, exercise can help take your mind off your worries, give you a rush of endorphins, and lift your spirits.

In fact, exercise improved physical functioning and psychological well-being of patients with cancer during and after treatments. Exercise has been shown to improve cardiovascular fitness, decrease depression and anxiety, boost self-esteem and happiness, and even make you hungry. 

“If you’re at rest for too long, inactivity will feed depression,” Howell explains. 

Yoga, in particular, is a great form of stress relief because it’s a gentle form of exercise and it’s about breathing, focus, and movement all at the same time. If you take yoga classes at a cancer center, the instructors will adapt the poses to make it easier if you have restricted movement. “You’re physically allowing the energy in your body to flow out of you,” Howell says. 

Talk to your healthcare provider about which exercises are right for you. 

4. Relax 

When you’re undergoing cancer treatment, it’s important to carve out time in your day to relax and lower your stress levels. Instead of simply lying down, you can be intentional about relaxation by applying such techniques as mindfulness meditation, visualization or guided imagery, or progressive muscle relaxation7,8,9.

When Paige Davis, 43, from Austin, Texas, was diagnosed with stage 2b breast in 2013, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy for 6 months and reconstruction.

As a self-proclaimed "stressed-out entrepreneur", Davis says she had already practiced a mantra-based meditation regularly to deal with stress, so when she received the diagnosis, turning to her breath was the first thing she did. “In the midst of so much fear and uncertainty in that moment I just felt an overwhelming sense of peace and calm,” she recalls.

Throughout her cancer journey, Davis continued to use meditation, a loving kindness type, in particular. “It’s about cultivating that compassion for self and others and really feeling that inner connectedness,” she says. 

She also used guided visualization and imagined herself going into surgery, healing, and seeing the chemotherapy as a friendly energy that did its work and then left her body.

Not only did these modalities help calm Davis’ anxiety, but she says they also helped speed up the healing process. “For me, it was a way to channel my thoughts and energy in a more productive way,” she says. 

To get started with meditation, try InsightTimer, a free app with more than 6,000 guided meditations or Headspace that also offers a free 10-day trial. 

5. Laugh

The old adage “laughter is the best medicine” is backed up by some new scientific research.

Laughter can reduce pain. Having a good laugh in social settings increases pleasurable sensations and releases endorphins—those feel-good chemicals in the brain, according to a 2017 study published in The Journal of Neuroscience2

Another study published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2015 found that women with breast cancer who participated in a therapeutic laughter program felt less anxious and depressed after a single day of the therapy3

Carve out time to do things that are fun: spend time with people who make you laugh, watch a comedy movie, or watch clips of your favorite comedian on YouTube.

“More than anything, maintaining your sense of humor is an important part of being able to cope with illness,” Howell says.

There is no "right way" to cope with stress. You may need to test several options to determine what works best for you. Be patient until you hit on the right action or combination for conquering stress and improving your overall health and well-being.



1. The Value of Stress Relieving Techniques. Cancer Nursing Practice. https://journals.rcni.com/cancer-nursing-practice/the-value-of-stress-relieving-techniques-cnp.14.4.14.e1167. Accessed January 3, 2018. 

2. Creative Therapy: Making Art At Any Skill Level Reduces Stress, Cortisol Levels. Medical Daily. http://www.medicaldaily.com/art-therapy-stress-reduction-cortisol-389841. Accessed November 12, 2017.

3. Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants' Response Following Art Making. Taylor & Francis Online.  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07421656.2016.1166832. Accessed November 12, 2017.

4. Will I Be Able To Exercise During Treatment? American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/understanding-your-diagnosis/after-diagnosis/will-i-be-able-to-exercise.html. Accessed November 12, 2017.

5. Getting Started with Mindfulness. Mindful. https://www.mindful.org/meditation/mindfulness-getting-started/. Accessed November 12, 2017.

6. Can Visualization Techniques Treat Serious Diseases? Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/think-well/201601/can-visualization-techniques-treat-serious-diseases. Accessed November 12, 2017.

7. Relaxation Techniques. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/relaxation-technique/art-20045368?pg=2. Accessed November 12, 2017.

8. Social Laughter Trigger Endogenous Opioid Release in Humans. The Journal of Neuroscience.  http://www.jneurosci.org/content/early/2017/05/23/JNEUROSCI.0688-16.2017. Accessed November 12, 2017.

9. Laughter and Stress Relief in Cancer Patients: A Pilot Study. US National Library of Medicine.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4439472/. Accessed November 12, 2017.



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