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Keeping Stress in Check

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To make an appointment with the Symptom Management and Supportive Care Clinic, call 877-907-0859.

Cancer's silent partner taxes mind and body when both are at their most vulnerable

"We see the destructive effects of stress on cancer patients every day," says Susan Urba, M.D., who led the Rogel Cancer Center's Symptom Management and Supportive Care Clinic until 2019. "Racing thoughts and persistent worrying can trigger insomnia, appetite changes, diarrhea and nausea."

While symptoms of stress may call for specific treatment, Urba says the best approach is to get to the source of the stress. "Developing a stress management practice is a wise move for patients and caregivers at any point before, during or after treatment."

The good news: Stress management works. According to a recent study in the journal Cancer, steps to manage stress can pay big dividends now and in the future. Breast cancer patients who completed a 10-week stress management program after diagnosis reported better quality of life than those who didn't when surveyed at six months, one year, five years and more than 10 years later.

"Everyone benefits from taking simple steps to keep stress in check,” Urba says. These include meditation, guided imagery, art and music therapy, all accessible through the Rogel Cancer Center's Complementary Therapies Program.

"Stress goes hand-in-hand with hearing the words 'you have cancer,'" says Claire Casselman, one of the program's social workers and the Rogel Cancer Center's guided imagery clinician. To restore some sense of well-being amid cancer's chaos, she recommends these four strategies:

  • Breathe.
    Whether through a regular meditation routine or a momentary pause (see sidebar), connect with the refreshing power of your breath.

  • Move.
    Got 30 seconds?

    Relaxation is just a breath away. Devote the next half minute to bringing awareness to your breathing, inhaling and exhaling purposefully.

    1. Inhale slowly through your nose. Air passing over the hairs in the nose triggers a relaxing biochemical response.

    2. Exhale slowly. When anxious, we tend to constrict our muscles and breath. Before you can take the next restorative, soothing breath, let go of this one.
    Build at least a little bit of physical activity into every day. When possible, head outdoors. Research confirms the healing value of connecting with nature.

  • Imagine.
    Techniques like guided imagery, music and art therapy counter the mind's tendency to imagine the worst. Redirect it in a positive direction, not a worrisome one.

  • Use self-talk.
    One way to keep thoughts from spiraling into stress is to acknowledge and respond to your negative self-talk. Without minimizing the gravity of cancer, counter the negative messages you send yourself with more constructive ones.

Get more information about complementary therapies online:

Continue reading the Fall, 2015 issue of Thrive.

Editor's note: Susan Urba, M.D. has retired from the U-M Rogel Cancer Center. The cancer center continues to offer a symptom management clinic.

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Thrive Issue: 
Fall, 2015