How can those struggling with cancer cope with psychological stress?

Cancer diagnosis and treatment is a life-changing experience. People diagnosed with cancer may experience some psychological problems depending on the difficulties of the disease and treatment. The psychological effects of cancer continue even after the cancer has been overcome. It is very important to improve the psychological state of people for the treatment and control of cancer. In the following sections of the article, I will focus on the negative psychological effects of cancer in patients and what can be done to cope with the psychological effects and to improve the psychological state of the patients.

Psychological Stress and Cancer

When individuals are under physical, mental, or emotional stress, the body releases stress hormones (such as epinephrine and norepinephrine) that increase blood pressure, accelerate heart rate, and raise blood sugar levels. It is normal to experience stress from time to time. But people who experience high levels of stress repeatedly over a long period of time can develop mental and physical health problems. Intense and long-term (chronic) stress increases the likelihood of people experiencing cardiology, fertility, urinary and obesity problems. People who experience chronic stress have weakened immune systems and are more prone to respiratory infections such as the flu or the common cold. They experience psychological problems such as headaches, sleep problems, depression and anxiety.

There are studies showing that psychological stress increases the risk of developing cancer. People under chronic stress are more likely to engage in harmful habits such as smoking, overeating or drinking alcohol. These harmful habits are behaviors that increase the risk of cancer. As a result of a meta-analysis of studies investigating the relationships between stress and cancer, it is seen that stress-related psychological and social factors are associated with higher cancer rates in healthy individuals without a history of cancer, and stress is associated with a lower survival rate in cancer patients.

Psychological Effects of Cancer

People feel stressed when they are under mental, physical and emotional pressure. People become stressed when they feel that they cannot manage or control the changes caused by cancer. Stress can become a factor that can reduce the quality of life of cancer patients. This is because the stress a person feels due to the difficulty is much greater than their coping skills and resources. Some studies show that high levels of stress in cancer patients adversely affect the course of their disease.

It is normal in the adaptation process to experience the stages of shock, denial, anger, depression and acceptance after a cancer diagnosis. Some patients are stuck in one of these stages and cannot adapt to the disease process. Cancer patients who cannot adapt to the disease may develop feelings of helplessness and hopelessness when they cannot cope with intense stress. Patients who feel helpless and hopeless because of the disease are more likely to refuse treatment and engage in harmful behaviors such as smoking and alcohol use. It is seen that the mortality rate increases in patients due to these behaviors. Some studies show that trying to cope with the stress of cancer patients by smoking and drinking alcohol increases the risk of depression and psychological disorders occur due to the effect and trigger of alcohol and cigarettes. Patients who can use effective coping methods seem to have lower levels of depression and anxiety and experience less psychological and physical symptoms from cancer or chemotherapy.

A Traumatic Experience: Cancer

Events in which people are faced with a real threat in an unexpected way and feel intense feelings of horror, fear and helplessness can be defined as traumatic experiences. Unexpected events, such as the person himself or a close family member contracting a serious illness, are traumatic and can cause high levels of repetitive stress. Cancer is a traumatic experience. Fighting cancer includes many stressful and traumatic events that recur or persist in the process. The diagnosis stage, the treatment stage, the recurrence of cancer after the completion of the treatment or the possibility of recurrence of the cancer can cause traumatic stress. Being diagnosed with cancer can also trigger past traumas. For example, traumatic memories of a close relative and friend who had cancer in the past life of a cancer patient may be triggered and start to cause discomfort. One of the most distinctive features of trauma is the disconnection of people from the future. People under the influence of trauma enter a cycle in which they repeatedly experience the thoughts and feelings associated with the traumatic event. The traumatic effects of cancer prevent the person’s existing coping mechanisms from working and being hopeful for the future. This may adversely affect the treatment.

Cancer-Related Post Traumatic Stress Symptoms

There are some research findings proving that approximately 60% of cancer patients show signs of post-traumatic stress. Symptoms of cancer-related post-traumatic stress can occur at any time. Patients battling cancer may begin to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress at any point, such as at diagnosis, during treatment, after treatment is complete, or at a cancer recurrence.

Post Traumatic Stress Symptoms:

Feeling often irritable, anxious or tense

-Not being able to think clearly, unable to stay in the moment

-Experiencing sleep problems

– Avoiding other people

-Loss of interest in life

Trigger: Post-traumatic stress symptoms can be triggered when certain smells, sounds, and sights are associated with chemotherapy. Frequent triggers can cause cancer patients to avoid treatment.

Factors Increasing the Risk of Post Traumatic Stress:

Feeling high levels of chronic stress

Traumatic experiences prior to cancer diagnosis

Psychological problems before cancer diagnosis

– Little or no social support

Avoiding dealing with stress and problems

– advanced stage of cancer

-Long lasting surgeries

-Relapse of cancer

Factors Reducing the Risk of Post Traumatic Stress:

Emotional and social support helps patients learn to cope with stress.

– Obtaining clear information about the stage of cancer and developing open relationships with doctors and other healthcare professionals help minimize the stress caused by uncertainty in the patient.

How Can Cancer Fighters Cope With Psychological Stress?

Emotional and social support can help patients learn to cope with psychological stress. Increasing stress coping skills can reduce depression, anxiety, and illness- and treatment-related symptoms among patients. The ways they can apply to cope with stress are as follows.


-Psycho-education about cancer

– Relaxation, meditation or stress management training

-Social support in a group setting

-Medications for depression or anxiety

-To exercise

Cancer and EMDR Therapy

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is a psychotherapy that improves people’s distressing symptoms and emotional pain and stress as a result of stressful life experiences. EMDR is a therapy recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) for post-traumatic stress disorder. Studies conducted in this area report that EMDR provides a shorter recovery time compared to other trauma therapies. The effect of EMDR therapy; It is the ability to look back on experiences that once made you feel weak, insecure, hopeless, or helpless, and that hurt you, feeling empowered.

It is very important to improve the psychological state of people for the prevention, treatment and control of cancer. Studies show that EMDR therapy reduces symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress in cancer patients. It is very beneficial for people who have been diagnosed with cancer to receive psychological support, including EMDR therapy, during the treatment of the disease, after the treatment is completed or in the relapse stages. Resolving distressing traumatic experiences associated with cancer with EMDR therapy is like a psychological stem cell transplant. With EMDR therapy, dysfunctional negative beliefs about the person’s cancer experience are replaced with functional positive beliefs. EMDR therapy reveals and increases the person’s ability to cope with difficulties. It is ensured that people stay in the moment, adapt to the disease process and look to the future with hope.



Civilotti, C., Castelli, L., Binaschi, L., Cussino, M., Tesio, V., Di Fini, G., & Torta, R. (2015). Dissociative symptomatology in cancer patients. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 118.

Chida, Y., Hamer, M., Wardle, J., & Steptoe, A. (2008). Do stress-related psychosocial factors contribute to cancer incidence and survival?. Nature clinical practice Oncology, 5(8), 466-475.


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