Metastatic Breast Cancer: How to Deal With Stress

Patient Expert
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When you’re diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer (MBC), you begin an all-out war, with full attention paid to your breast, your bones, and your blood. But with all this effort centered around your body, there’s no time to think about you. MBC is a war on two fronts: physical and emotional. Your body needs treatment, but just as importantly, starting on day one, so do your heart and mind. Here are some ways to regain (and maintain) emotional equilibrium.


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Why it’s important to reduce stress

Studies over the years have drawn a connection between stress and cancer in general; a 2013 study focuses on stress and breast cancer metastasis in particular. The study identifies a gene, ATF3, that appears to turn cancer-fighting immune cells into “cancer helpers” — cells that allow cancer to escape from its original tumor and metastasize. Can stress shorten your survival time? More studies are needed, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to try to lower your stress levels as much as possible.


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You didn’t cause your breast cancer

Do you wonder what you did to “bring on” MBC? Was it the cigarettes, the alcohol, the stress of your divorce? Or maybe you think you “deserve” your illness, that you created “bad karma.” Or some misplaced childhood guilt makes you think you “had it coming.” Drop these thoughts: Bad things happen to good people. You didn’t “earn” your stage IV cancer. It descended on you like a lightning strike; you drew the short straw — the shortest one possible — via random bad luck.


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Every day’s a new beginning

Try to start each day fresh, letting go of any guilt and regret from the day before. If you simply must have a plan, let it be flexible. When the plan has to change, don’t resist; let it. Trust that your body is taking you exactly where you need to go that day. And try to enjoy the journey, especially on your good days. Relax when you can — it’s only by letting go of the stress of planning that we’re able to appreciate the potential joy of spontaneity.


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Spend time with friends

When you’re diagnosed with MBC, friends may act awkwardly around you at first. But those worth keeping will soon learn how to deal with their feelings around losing you, embracing the here and now rather than focusing on the future. When possible, do what you’ve always done: Take a walk, hit a wine bar, or enjoy a hot fudge sundae together. If all you can manage is a drive around town, do it. It’s the company that counts, not the destination.


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Exercise

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, physical exercise is a known “stress-bufferer” — an activity that lowers the effects of stress on both body and mind. Exercise helps in multiple ways: Increasing your heart and respiration rates helps your body cleanse itself, and the process of exercising can pull your mind away from dark thoughts. When moving is difficult, try mindful relaxation: scanning your body and willing it to relax, part by part.


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It’s OK to accept help

When you first hear your cancer has progressed to stage IV, the news occupies your mind and heart 24/7. You feel totally alone. Once you share with those around you, though, you may be amazed by the outpouring of support, and you will learn that it’s OK to accept help. “I need” and “I want” aren’t signs of weakness. They’re simply an admission that you’re finally ready to receive the same love and care that you’ve always lavished so regularly on those around you.


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Get outside

Have you ever emerged outdoors after a long day in front of the computer and suddenly felt your spirits lift? It’s true: Mother Nature is a proven boon to emotional health. One study showed that simply looking at photos of the great outdoors increases your feelings of well-being. Even when you’re not doing well enough to take a walk, step outside and gaze at the sky. Concentrate on losing yourself in that huge expanse. You can’t help but feel calmer.


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Work when you can

When you learn the probable manner (if not the time) of your death, there’s usually an incredible pull to go backward — to return to life as you knew it, before cancer. If you’ve been employed, holding onto your job, even part-time, accomplishes two things: It brings an aura of normalcy to your day, and it exercises your brain. Mental exercise can help lower stress; the problem-solving and social interaction involved in most work situations is a proven stress-buster.


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Seek professional help

Meeting with someone professionally trained to help lower your stress is usually time (and money, if applicable) well spent. A psychologist can teach you the behavioral therapy necessary to talk yourself down off those scary ledges of despair. A psychiatrist may help you dig deeper. Are you religious? Find a faith leader to guide you. Spiritual? Try reiki, reflexology, or therapeutic massage; practitioners of these healing arts are usually very good listeners.