Stress management during cancer treatment

Strategies to help you manage stress

A diagnosis of cancer is a life-changing event, one that brings significant change and stress. Many aspects of your life will be affected and need to be considered at once, including considerations of finances, work, child-minding and relationships, as well as the physical demands and side-effects of the cancer treatment itself. 1

Having a plan that can help reduce and manage stress will enable you to more effectively cope during your cancer treatment. 4

Below are a list of tools and strategies that may be helpful in managing your stress during treatment.

Have a plan or strategy in place to manage your finances

Depending on your type of cancer and treatment, you may want to consider how your finances will be impacted during this time. For example: 3

  • Will you need to take time off work for treatment?
  • How much will your tests and medications cost? Do you have health insurance that will cover this?
  • Are there other sources of income available to you, such as benefits?
  • Do you have a budget in place to help manage income and expenses?
  • Have you set up automatic direct debits to manage routine bills?

Be informed about your diagnosis and treatment

Asking your specialist team about your treatment options and side-effects will help you manage your expectations, as well as help you feel more in control of the decisions you are making around your treatment. Don’t be afraid to get second opinions, and talk your decisions through with your friends and family as well. 5

Get support around you

It is important to allow your friends and family to help you during this time and they will appreciate being able to help, and to feel needed. Some things they could do to help include: 6

  • Going with you to your treatments and specialist appointments
  • Helping with household chores (i.e. cooking, cleaning)
  • Running errands – such supermarket shopping and ensuring routine bills are paid on time
  • Looking after children or doing school pick-ups and drop-offs
  • Being a point of contact for information to other family and friends on your behalf
  • Being there to talk and offer emotional support
  • Be your exercise buddy

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies are commonly used by people undergoing cancer treatment to help manage side-effects and stress, however before commencing any complementary therapy, you should discuss this will your specialist or care team. 16

Complementary therapies such as meditation, relaxation techniques and counselling can provide emotional and physical support, as well as relieve side-effects from treatment and restore a sense of balance and control over your life. 7

Ensure you are eating a balanced diet

Cancer treatments are designed to destroy cancer cells; however they can also destroy healthy cells, causing side-effects (such as nausea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, difficulty swallowing as well as diarrhoea and constipation) which can impact on your ability and willingness to eat and drink. 11

Eating a balanced diet will not only help you manage stress during your treatment, it will also: 11

  • Help repair damaged cells and tissue from treatment
  • Improves immune function and assists your body in fighting infection
  • Assists in weight management and prevents malnutrition
  • Helps to manage some side-effects of treatment

Tips to eating a balanced diet include:

  • Choose foods from a variety of food groups
  • Eat small and frequent meals to help with digestion as well as increasing your calorie intakes

Exercise regularly

Exercise has many benefits (including stress-reduction) for people with cancer. It is recommended you should participate in physical activity before, during and after your cancer treatments.

It is important that you speak to a specialist, such as an accredited physiotherapist or physiologist so that your exercise program can be tailored to your current level of fitness, whilst accommodating for your type of cancer, prognosis and any adverse effects you may be experiencing from your current treatments.9

Get adequate sleep

Getting enough, regular sleep each night will allow your body to cope with your cancer treatment and associated stress better. Things that can help you achieve adequate sleep include: 10

  • Going to bed at a regular time each night
  • Ensuring you have a dark, quiet place to sleep, away from lights, phones and other devices.
  • Exercise regularly
  • Don’t eat too late at night, as it can cause stomach discomfort and prevent you falling asleep
  • Try to avoid caffeine from early afternoon, such as tea, coffee or cola drinks. Caffeine takes a long time to process in the body, which means its’ effects can be long-lasting.

Frequently asked questions

What impact does stress have on cancer?

Many people with cancer face extreme levels of stress, often over a long period of time.

Whilst chronic stress is related to a number of physical health problems, such as headaches, stomach issues (diarrhea, bloating and constipation), heart palpitations and chest pain12 , leading cancer organisations suggest the evidence of stress causing cancer as weak.13, 14, 15

In a large meta-analysis (a study of a number of studies) in 2013 found stress, as measured by work-related stress, to be an unlikely risk-factor for cancer development in prostate, lung, colorectal or breast cancers. 17

Rather, it is suggested people who engage in certain life-style related behaviours in an attempt to reduce stress (such as smoking and drinking alcohol) increases their risk for developing cancer. 13,14,15

What can I do if I feel out of control and I can’t manage my stress or feel depressed or anxious?

Depression and anxiety are common during cancer treatment. There are a number of support groups and organisations that have been set up to offer assistance, support and help for people undergoing cancer treatment and who find it difficult to cope.

Below are points of contact where you can receive support to manage your feelings of distress, depression or anxiety around your cancer.

It is important you speak with your doctor or reach out to a support service. By taking steps to help manage your symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression you will cope better with treatment side-effects and improve your quality of life.

What about the use of alternative medicines such as herbs to help manage my stress?

We recommend speaking with your specialist doctor and cancer care team before taking any complementary and alternative medicines to ensure no risk of adverse (bad) reactions drug reactions with your current cancer treatments.


To view the full list of references, click here.
  1. Cancer Council NSW. (2019). Emotions and Cancer: A guide for people with cancer, their friends and families. Retrieved on 3rd April from
  2. Cancer Council NSW. (2018). Cancer and Your Finances: A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends. Retrieved on 3rd April from
  3. Cancer Council NSW. (2018). Cancer and your finances. Retrieved on 3rd April 2019 from
  4. Cancer Council NSW. (2019). Tools for coping. Retrieved on 3rd April 2019 from
  5. Cancer Council NSW. (2019). Making decisions. Retrieved on 3rd April 2019 from
  6. Cancer Council NSW. (2019). Getting support. Retrieved on 3rd April 2019 from
  7. Cancer Council NSW. (2019). Using Complementary Therapies. Retrieved on 3rd April 2019 from
  8. Cancer Australia. Australian Government. (n.d). Eating problems. Retrieved on 3rd April 2019 from
  9. Clinical Oncology Society of Australia. (2018). COSA position statement on exercise in cancer care. (2018). Retrieved on 3rd April 2019 from
  10. Cancer Council NSW. (2019). Improving Sleep. Retrieved on 3rd April 2019 from
  11. Cancer Council NSW. (2016). Nutrition and Cancer: A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends. Retrieved on 3rd April 2019 from
  12. The American Institute of Stress. (n.d). Stress Effects. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from
  13. National Cancer Institute. (2012). Psychological Stress and Cancer. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from
  14. Cancer Council NSW. (n.d). Stress and anxiety do not cause cancer. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from
  15. Cancer Research UK. (2018). Does stress affect cancer risk? Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from
  16. Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA). (2013). Position Statement: The use of complementary and alternative medicine by cancer patients. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from
  17. K., et al. (2013). Work-stress and risk of cancer: meta-analysis of 5700 incident cancer events in 116000 European men and women. BMJ 2013;346:f165. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from
  18. Cancer Australia, Australian Government. (n.d). Anxiety and Depression. Retrieved on 4th April 2019 from

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