Be the Boss Over Cancer

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When it comes to life stresses, cancer is certainly one of the most traumatic. Over time, the strain of coping with your diagnosis and the realities of treatment will probably be compounded by other stresses, such as keeping up with work and dealing with the worries of family and friends. If left unchecked, your body's reaction to these stresses -- through increased blood pressure, a more rapid heart rate, decreased digestion, increased muscle tension and higher levels of stress hormones like adrenaline -- can lead to impaired immune function and an assortment of troubling stress symptoms. Preventing these effects requires planning, an awareness of your needs and limitations, and a mastery of stress-reduction techniques that can stop your body's "stress response" before it gets out of hand.

Reducing Workplace Stress

Today, most cancer treatment centers offer stress-reduction programs. If you take advantage of these opportunities from the beginning, you are less likely to become overwhelmed with stress over time. A few ways to get started:


People under stress tend to breathe in short, shallow breaths that do little to bring in oxygen and a lot to increase tension in the chest and shoulders. Next time you feel panicky or tense, take a few moments to breathe deeply. Getting more oxygen into your system will slow your heart rate, decrease your blood pressure and relieve that sense of panic.


Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to combat stress, so take steps to incorporate bouts of exercise into your workday. Go for a walk at lunchtime, or head to the gym for a yoga class or treadmill time. Throughout the day, take short breaks to stretch or do simple exercises in your desk chair. You can also try meditation during a 10- or 20-minute break.(See also: Cancer Treatment and Exercise and Exercise Program After Breast Cancer Treatment.)

Listen to Music

It's hard to stay tense when your favorite song is playing. Load your iPod with music you love or pop CDs into your computer drive and listen quietly.

Head Outside

Sunlight and fresh air can help you de-stress. Eat your lunch outside, take strolls during breaks or suggest that your next one-on-one meeting with a colleague be a walk-and-talk affair.


A growing body of research has found that laughter can reduce the physical symptoms of stress by increasing the flow of oxygen throughout your body and releasing feel-good endorphins in the brain.

Just Say No

Simplify your life by setting up boundaries at work that will allow you to say no to certain types of requests, such as staying late for non-essential projects. Although it can be difficult to say “no,” learning how can help you become a better employee; you won't be overburdened with extra projects, and you won't feel trapped by every request you receive. 

For examples of how to set professional boundaries, please click here.


If you're someone who likes to do everything yourself, it's time to get over it! Look over your workload for the next several months to determine what requires your personal attention and what can be distributed to others. Keep in mind that you can provide guidance and direction without being on-site.

Keep the Lines of Communication Open

If you decide to tell your colleagues, be as open as possible with them about your needs -- and possible limitations -- as your treatment progresses.

Relaxation Strategies

Effective Breathing

  1. Sit up straight in a comfortable chair, feet flat on the floor, neck and shoulders relaxed.
  2. Take a deep breath through your nose, with your mouth closed. Use your diaphragm when inhaling - consciously pushing your belly outward as you inhale. Put one hand on your abdomen, if you like, to feel how it rises and falls.
  3. Exhale slowly through your mouth, with your lips pursed as if you were whistling (or about to give someone a peck on the cheek). Make your exhalation twice as long as your inhalation, pulling your diaphragm in as you empty the air from your lungs.
  4. Repeat three or more times, until you feel yourself relax.

Progressive Relaxation

  1. Remove your shoes and any uncomfortable or restrictive clothing, including eyeglasses.
  2. Remove any possible distractions. Turn off the television, radio and phone, and dim the lights to a comfortable level.
  3. Sit in a comfortable chair, head and neck relaxed, with your hands at rest in your lap, palms up. (You can lie down if you prefer, just don't fall asleep!)
  4. Close your eyes and breathe deeply.
  5. Keeping your eyes closed, focus your mind on your feet and toes. Slowly tighten the muscles in your feet, hold for a beat, and slowly relax.
  6. Repeat this tightening and relaxing pattern with each of the muscle groups in your body, gradually working upward. Move your focus from the calves to the thighs to the glutes, through your back, chest and head, including your face. Don't forget your hands and arms.
  7. Continue to breathe deeply until you feel relaxed and calm. You can test your level of relaxation by putting your hands against your face or neck. Warm hands mean a relaxed body. If they're still cool, continue the exercise until they warm up.


  1. Remove your shoes and any uncomfortable or restrictive clothing, including eyeglasses.
  2. Remove any possible distractions. Turn off the television, radio and phone, and dim the lights to a comfortable level.
  3. Sit in a comfortable chair, head and neck relaxed, with feet flat on the floor and your hands resting in your lap, palms up. (You can lie down or sit on a mat if you prefer - just be sure you are comfortable enough to stay in this position for ten to 20 minutes.)
  4. Close your eyes and picture yourself in a pleasant, restful place - a green meadow by a cool lake, the soft sand of a Caribbean beach, a warm rock by a clear mountain stream.
  5. Fill in every detail as you breathe in deeply through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth.
  6. With each breath, slowly let the tension ease out of your body's muscles. Allow the muscles in your feet, your legs, your back, shoulders, arms, hands and feet to relax as you sink further into the restful world of your inner picture.

Additional Resources

The American Art Therapy Association, Inc. (1-888-290-0878), which runs stress-relieving programs for people of all ages, has chapters throughout the country.


The Art Therapy Sourcebook, by Cathy A. Malchiodi (Lowell House)
Creative Visualization, by Shakti Gawain (New World Publishing)
Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Delacorte)
Healing Essence: A Cancer Doctor's Practical Program for Hope and Recovery
, by Mitchell L. Gaynor (Kodansha International)
Living Beyond Limits, by David Spiegel, M.D. (Ballantine Books, 1993)
Minding the Body, Mending the Mind, by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D. (Bantam New Age Books)
The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, by M.M. Davis, M. Eshelman, and E. Eshelman (New Harbinger Publications)
Staying Well With Guided Imagery, by Belleruth Naparstek (Warner Books)
Stress Blasters, by Brian Chichester and Perry Garfinkel (Rodale Press)
Stress Remedies, by Carl Sherman (Rodale Press)
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Hyperion)
Yoga For Dummies, by George Feuerstein, Ph.D. and Larry Payne, Ph.D. (IDG Books Worldwide, Inc.)

Videotapes and Audiotapes

TouchStar Productions, of Seattle Washington (1-800-759-1294), carries a range of audio and videotapes that can help you with guided imagery, creative visualization, positive affirmations and other stress-reduction techniques. Some of the best are by veteran stress researcher Bernie Seigel, M.D., and pioneering cancer doctor Carol Simonton, M.D. (; 1-800-459-3424).

For help with meditation, try the Mindfulness Meditation Practice Tapes by stress reduction expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.

Web Sites

For more information on creativity and coping, check out Stanford University's Cancer Supportive Care Program.