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Stress and Lymphoma: What You May Not Know

Medically reviewed by Richard LoCicero, M.D.
Written by Imee Williams
Posted on June 23, 2022

If you’re living with lymphoma, any anxiety and fear you may have surrounding your cancer diagnosis can be a source of stress. While short-term or acute stress can help you stay focused and motivated, long-term or chronic stress can carry physical and mental health risks. It can also affect your overall quality of life.

It is important to recognize your body’s response to stress. Some common signs include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased alcohol or other substance use
  • Irritability
  • Depressed feelings
  • Low energy
  • Chest pain
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Panic attacks
  • Digestive problems
  • Weight gain

Fortunately, there are ways to manage stress and reduce its negative effects on your well-being.

The Impact of Stress and Lymphoma

Stress with lymphoma can be caused by many reasons. In addition to ordinary life stressors, you may be stressed due to uncertainty about the future, cancer’s strain on your relationships, the physical effects of cancer treatment, and more.

One member shared, “It’s amazing how stressed you get just before scans and how you can start thinking every ache and pain means the cancer is back or spreading.” Another wrote, “I’m a little stressed out as I don’t know what to expect after next week’s bloodwork.”

For others, lymphoma is an additional burden on top of everyday responsibilities. “Right now I’m worrying about everything, including missing work,” a member shared.

Untreated, these stresses can often have real health consequences. For instance, stress can lead to secondary medical conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, people living with Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma have a high risk of developing anxiety from the physical stress and negative side effects of treatment.

Chronic stress can also expose you to high levels of stress hormones. These hormones may harm your health by weakening your immune system or increasing your risk of heart disease.

Can Stress Impact Lymphoma Outcomes?

Most studies that have examined the impact of stress on cancer and cancer outcomes have been done in animal models. In these animal studies, chronic stress has been found to increase the production of growth factors that are linked to the development of cancerous tumors. A recent study found that stress hormones can also “wake up” dormant cancer cells and cause them to form tumors again.

However, no such research has been done on humans. There is no evidence that suggests stress causes lymphoma or other types of cancer. Researchers cannot provide evidence that psychological stress worsens lymphoma in humans, either. That said, some members have shared that stress can affect how they experience lymphoma and its side effects. “The more stress, the worse the neuropathy and chemo brain,” one member said. Another wrote, “The stress and pain are definitely tied together.”

How To Manage Stress With Lymphoma

There are different ways to manage stress; some are more helpful than others. Some people manage their stress through risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, or adopting a sedentary lifestyle. Those who engage in risky behaviors have higher levels of depression and anxiety compared to people who engage in healthier, more effective coping strategies.

If you’re stressed, these approaches to stress management may help.

Talk to Your Doctor

Speaking with your oncologist or a professional psychologist or psychiatrist may help you cope with stressors. These professionals can also work with you on various treatment options.

You can prepare before your medical visit by writing down your questions and identifying stressors in your life. You can also consider bringing a friend or a relative to your visit for emotional support. Ask your doctor for specific tools to manage your stress. It’s important to be honest with your provider, too. They are there to help you through this challenging time. Know that any communication between you and a health care professional is confidential.

“You should not be concerned about seeing a psychiatrist or a therapist,” said one member. “You are going through one of the most stressful situations someone can go through. You need to accept help wherever you find it.”

Find Relaxing Activities

Try to enjoy a relaxing activity twice a day for at least 20 minutes each time. As one member shared, “I found music to be my number one stress buffer, particularly down-tempo electronic dance (aka chill). It puts me in a meditative, almost hypnotic state where nothing much bothers me.” Other people turn to spiritual practices to relax, like one member who said, “Yesterday morning when I was stressed and blue, I reread Psalm 91. I recovered back to my usual self fairly soon after that.”

Keeping up your regular hobbies may also help you keep stress under control. “I’ve been playing my accordion to deal with the stress, so I’m happy,” a member said.

Try Relaxation Techniques

Many people with cancer — as well as their caregivers — have found that doing relaxation or wellness programs has helped them cope with stress. These practices include guided meditation, yoga, music therapy, massages, and breathing exercises. “I do acupuncture and reflexology massage for stress,” said one member. Practicing some of these techniques can help you feel calm during stressful moments.

Talk to a Trusted Friend or Loved One

Sometimes, you just need to let it out. Finding friends and family members to confide in about your stress can be a great relief. One member shared, “I am stressed about something entirely different and am not beating it right now. What does help are honest talks with my daughter, my only trusted family. She unloads to me, and I to her. We can’t make things better for each other, but the straight talk takes a load off.”

Stay Active

Finding at least 30 minutes to exercise every day can help boost your mood, energy, and overall health. Exercises like walking are good options. Others may serve dual benefits: “Yoga can be a big help because it can be very calming and still strengthen your body,” one member said.

Get Enough Sleep

Getting ample sleep every night is essential for proper immune function and relaxation. The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults get seven to eight hours of sleep every night. Avoiding long naps during the day, decreasing caffeine consumption, and creating a bedtime routine may help you achieve a better night’s sleep.

Eat a Healthy Diet

A healthy diet includes getting enough of the important nutrients (including vitamins, minerals, protein, carbohydrates, and fat) that the body needs. The American Cancer Society recommends consuming 1.5 to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily. Foods that are high in vitamins A, C, D, and E and the mineral zinc (such as broccoli, berries, garlic, ginger, turmeric, and spinach) may help boost the immune system. A registered dietitian can work with you to create an eating plan.

Connect With Others Who Understand

It is important to stay connected with your family, friends, community, networks, and support groups. Having mutual support can encourage daily positivity and provide emotional healing and support to decrease stress and other mental health concerns.

MyLymphomaTeam is the social network for people with lymphoma and their loved ones. On MyLymphomaTeam, more than 11,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lymphoma.

How do you manage stress with lymphoma? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on June 23, 2022
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Richard LoCicero, M.D. has a private practice specializing in hematology and medical oncology at the Longstreet Clinic Cancer Center, in Gainesville, Georgia. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
Imee Williams is a freelance writer and Fulbright scholar, with a B.S. in neuroscience from Washington State University. Learn more about her here.

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