A CANCER DIAGNOSIS IS A LIFE-ALTERING EVENT. The resulting stress inflicts a psychological toll that can impact healing, but evidence shows several techniques can help people with cancer reduce stress and improve their quality of life.

A study published January 2023 in the Annual Review of Psychology reviewed data on various kinds of stress management interventions. Researchers found that interventions using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) had the greatest positive impact on the emotional well-being and physical health of cancer patients. CBT aims to change thoughts that affect behaviors and emotions. Practices include techniques to reduce negative thoughts, activities that produce positive feelings, and relaxation methods, such as progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and deep breathing.

Problem Solving

This approach can help address negative thoughts and relieve stress.

Researchers found CBT helped improve quality of life and relieved anxiety and depressive symptoms among people with cancer, with one study finding benefits persisted in some patients even 15 years after treatment. Patients also experienced biological changes, including increased activity in Th1 cells, a type of T cell that helps kill cancer cells, and lower cortisol, a hormone that regulates the body’s stress response. Elevated cortisol levels over a prolonged period can cause health problems.

“Persons receiving a diagnosis of cancer are simultaneously dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis, a great sense of uncertainty and vulnerability about the future. This is naturally a time of great anxiety and trepidation,” says Michael Antoni, lead author of the review and a biobehavioral oncology researcher in the Cancer Control Program at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Health System.

Personalized Approach

Since there are various stress-reduction techniques, patients should consult with their health care providers to decide which method might work best for them, according to Steven M. Tovian, a clinical psychologist in Highland Park, Illinois. “What’s best depends on the stage of cancer, the type of cancer and the kinds of treatments that are being used,” he says.

Antoni says CBT-based stress management provides patients with coping skills to handle uncertainty and relaxation skills that can be used on demand in stressful situations. People with cancer can build a solid foundation they can rely on long after their initial diagnosis, even well into remission. “These new opportunities and tools also imbue people with a more positive outlook and a sense of mastery and self-efficacy to take on challenges,” Antoni says.