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Finding out you have cancer is difficult, emotionally and physically. It is common to have negative thoughts, to feel anxious about what is happening to you. You may feel overwhelmed with information.

Tense muscles can create physical symptoms including aching neck and shoulders, chronic fatigue and indigestion. Signs of anxiety can include racing thoughts, headaches, loss of appetite and difficulty in sleeping. If your symptoms become severe they can be quite disabling. Fortunately there are some things that you can do to help relieve tension.

Many people have already found their own ways of dealing with anxiety and stress. You can use these just as successfully to cope with cancer. Thinking about the things that have helped you to cope in difficult situations in the past may help you now.

Your way of coping might be quite different from other people. Some methods may work for some people and not others. If you find something isn’t working for you, try something else.

Fear of the unknown and uncertainty about the future can be stressful.

Finding out about your illness and any treatments that are planned is the first step to understanding what you are facing. What has happened to other people will not necessarily happen to you. Cancer is different for everyone.

Only your doctors can give you detailed information about you and your cancer. It is important that you feel able to ask questions and discuss your situation with them. It is often a good idea to have a notebook to write down thoughts, questions and concerns that you want to talk to the doctors about. It may help to take a support person with you to these visits.

Hints for stress reduction

  • Get to know your body’s normal reactions so you can recognise when you are tense. Shallow breathing and a fast pulse are often signs of your body’s reaction to stress.
  • Learn to relax. Deep breathing helps you relax. Try to take several deep breaths each hour.
  • Communicate. Talking to other people can help you deal with your problems and reduce stress.
  • Adequate exercise will help you to reduce tension. Many people find physical activity reduces stress. Even a gentle walk can loosen you up. Check with your doctor about when you can start exercise and what sort is best for you.
  • Gentle massage can be physically and emotionally relaxing. This is usually safe for people with cancer. Check with your doctor if you’re not sure.
  • Laugh. You will be surprised how good it can make you feel, even if laughing was the last thing you thought you could do.
  • Have fun and learn to play a little. Keep up your hobbies and try to get out of the house regularly, even if only for short outings.
  • Listen to relaxing music in peaceful surroundings. Let other people know you do not want to be disturbed for a while.
  • Your religion or spiritual beliefs may be very supportive. A priest or chaplain can be a valuable spiritual counsellor.Be aware of your needs. Rest when you are tired. Limit tea and coffee. Drink water regularly through the day. Eat nutritious food. Be kind to yourself.
  • Make lists. Make a list to help you do what you want to do. If you don’t get them all done put them on the list for next time.
  • Take control of your own life. Live up to your expectations not someone else’s. Say “no” when extra commitments will cause stress.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help, it is a way of taking control and recognising you cannot do everything. Let friends and family help.

A simple technique like this can help your body relax and avoid a build up of tension.

Before you start, take the telephone off the hook and leave a note on the door so that you are not disturbed.

  • Lie, sit or stand with your feet apart. Rest your hands loosely in your lap or by your side.
  • Close your eyes and slow yourself down for a few minutes by breathing a little deeper and slower than usual.
  • Be aware of how your whole body is feeling through your toes, feet, calves, thighs, abdomen, chest, back, fingers, arms, shoulders, neck, head, scalp and face.
  • Now each time you breathe out, focus on different areas of your body and if there is any tension let it go. Let all your muscles slowly relax and enjoy the feeling of peace and calm that comes from total relaxation.
  • Rest quietly for a while and help your mind relax by thinking about the pleasant experience of complete relaxation.
  • Open your eyes, stretch slowly and return to your day.

Allow yourself a regular period of relaxation. Ten to 15 minutes, twice a day, may be enough. You might like to record instructions with some relaxing music.

For more information about relaxation techniques or to obtain a copy of Cancer Council NSW’s Relaxation CD call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can listen to the CD here.

Meditation is a state of focused awareness of the mind and body allowing thoughts to fall away, leaving a deep feeling of stillness and peace.

If you want to meditate try to set aside a regular period each day, 20–40 minutes is enough. Avoid times when you are overtired or have just eaten a heavy meal.

Many meditation techniques involve focusing fully on something – your breath, an object, music or a visualisation. You might like to learn with a teacher or in a group.

Here is a simple meditation that some people have found useful:

  • Position yourself comfortably. When you’re ready, take four long, slow deep breaths. Spend a moment or two giving full attention to your breathing. Concentrate on completely emptying your lungs then let them fill up by themselves.
  • Thoughts may come to you. Let them come and go like clouds floating by. There is no need to chase them. When you notice them, acknowledge that they are there and return your attention to your breathing.
  • Now imagine a brilliant white light way above your head. Picture a single beam of pure brightness coming down from this light into the top of your head. As you breathe see that light filling your body slowly, starting with your head and face. The light moves through your body, filling every cell. It moves through your arms and legs to the tips of your fingers and toes. Be aware of the brightness and peace that comes to you. Let that light fill your body.
  • Then when you are ready, bring your attention back to the breath. Bring your attention back to your surroundings and take the feelings of peace with you.

For more information about meditation or to obtain a copy of Cancer Council NSW’s Mindful Meditation CD call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or you can listen to the CD here.

Hypnosis can be described as a state of intensified attention and receptiveness. Exactly how it works is still unknown.

Qualified hypnotherapists often have a medical or psychology background. They use a variety of different methods to induce hypnosis in another person. How deeply a person responds depends on many different factors but most people can gain some benefit. A hypnotized person cannot be made to do anything against their will. Hypnotherapists will also teach simple self-hypnosis techniques.

Hypnotherapy can be valuable in helping people cope with the diagnosis of cancer through:

  • learning to deal with anxiety
  • achieving a deep state of relaxation
  • controlling pain or the side effects of treatment such as nausea
  • problem solving in combination with counselling.

Mindfulness can help you manage emotions. Mindfulness can be described as ‘consciously bringing awareness to your here and now experience with openness, interest and receptiveness’.

Mindfulness is often used with other meditative techniques.

There are many aspects of mindfulness – living in the present moment, engaging fully with what you are doing rather than ‘getting lost’ in your thoughts.

This simple mindfulness technique can be done while you are cleaning your teeth. Notice how the toothbrush feels on your teeth and gums, how the toothpaste smells and tastes and what sounds the brushing makes. Give all your attention to what you are doing.

Or practice eating something like a piece of fruit in slow motion. Totally focus on the taste and texture of the fruit and the sounds, sensations and movements inside the mouth.

How does mindfulness help reduce stress

When things become overwhelming it may help to sit down quietly, take a few deep breaths and try to look at things objectively.

Step 1look at all the different causes of your tension and choose one that you want to do something about
Step 2list all the possible options and solutions that you can think of. List even the ones that seem silly. Remember that doing nothing can also be an option
Step 3choose one solution, which is realistic, that you feel has a fair chance of succeeding and that you are comfortable with
Step 4give it an honest try and be kind to yourself
Step 5after a reasonable period, sit back and evaluate your success

“Music therapy is a planned and creative use of music to attain and maintain health and well-being.” The Australian Music Therapy Association

Music affects people in many ways, so how music therapy works is quite varied. It includes activating physiological responses e.g. heart or breathing rates, triggering emotional responses and social interactions or stimulating body movements and cognitive abilities.

In cancer care there is evidence that music therapy can reduce anxiety, reduce patients’ experience of pain and treatment-related symptoms such as nausea and vomiting.

Music therapists undertake an accredited course of training at a university and work in some health services and private practice.

Music therapists:

  • Assess individuals to identify abilities and needs.
  • Develop goals and objectives that address the individual needs of clients.
  • Select and employ appropriate musical techniques, methods and activities (live music, guided relaxation and imagery to music or guided songwriting) and combine them with a well-designed therapeutic process that will achieve the identified aims.
  • Regularly evaluate sessions to ensure effective program outcomes.

The way a musical therapist chooses to use music to achieve the therapeutic goal will depend largely on the needs of the individual they are working with.

For more information visit Australian Music Therapy Association

Take time to talk with the doctors and nurses involved in your treatment.

Talk with them about how you are feeling, they may offer suggestions on ways to help you relax or refer you to someone who can.

  • Seek medical advice for tension. Sometimes medication can help to control the acute symptoms of severe anxiety. Then you can start to use other methods to relax or sort out your problems effectively.
  • Counselling can be an effective method of relieving anxiety and is available from a wide range of health professionals such as psychologists, social workers and nurses.Consider joining a local cancer support group to talk with other people who have been affected by cancer. Many groups also teach relaxation, meditation and problem solving techniques.
  • Join a relaxation class. A class may be offered by your local community health centre, psychologists in private practice or at specialist centres.
  • Buy a relaxation or meditation CD that you can listen to at home. A wide variety is available through commercial outlets, cancer support groups and health professionals.
  • Learn a gentle relaxation exercise such as yoga or tai chi. Yoga, health and fitness and relaxation centres are listed in the Yellow Pages directory.
  • Meditation groups and teaching are offered by many religious and secular organisations, cancer support groups and a range of health and welfare professionals.
  • Hypnotherapists provide assistance for a wide range of problems. A list of members of the Australian Society of Hypnosis is available on 0430 708 449, email or visit