Coping with Stress After a Child's Cancer Diagnosis
National Stress Awareness Month
A childhood cancer diagnosis is one of the most intense, disruptive, and enduring stressors parents can have. Stress can be debilitating if it’s not managed correctly, especially when the source of it comes from a deadly illness or the loss of a loved one. Time stands still, and other life responsibilities take the back burner as your child becomes the number one priority. There is no better time to discuss parents’ stress after their child’s cancer diagnosis than during Stress Awareness Month, held every April since 1992. Health care professionals and health promotion experts across the country join forces to increase public awareness about both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. As we all have experienced in unison, you don’t need to be an expert to know that stress levels have risen exponentially in many households over the last few years. Imagine adding cancer to Covid! It becomes imperative to take time to de-stress so that your family’s cancer journey has the best outcome for you and your child.
What is Stress?
Stress is a normal human reaction that happens to everyone. The human body is designed to react to stress. When you experience changes or challenges (stressors), your body produces physical and mental responses. That’s stress. What happens to your body physically when stress kicks in? The body’s autonomic nervous system controls your heart rate, breathing, vision changes, etc. Its built-in stress response, the “fight-or-flight response,” helps the body face stressful situations. When a person has long-term (chronic) stress, continued activation of the stress response causes wear and tear on the body. Physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms develop.
Here are some physical signs that might indicate you are in stress mode:
- Increased aches and pains
- Chest pain or a feeling like your heart is racing
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping
- Headaches, dizziness, or shaking
- High blood pressure
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Stomach or digestive problems
- Weakened immune system
Emotional and Mental Signs of Stress Include:
- Anxiety or irritability
- Panic attacks
- Drinking alcohol too much or too often.
- Overeating or developing an eating disorder
- Starting to smoke or increasing smoking
- Using drugs
If you feel like any of these symptoms have significantly increased, especially since your child’s cancer diagnosis, you should speak with a mental health professional. It can be challenging to acknowledge bad habits that form because of stress, especially when you think it’s making you feel better or helping you cope with the everyday stressors of taking care of your child. However, these declines in physical and emotional health often add up and can cause more destruction to you and your ability as a parent and caregiver. So, it’s okay to get help and fast! We all have a different capacity when it comes to stress, some can take on a heavy load, and others are impacted quicker despite the amount of stress, and that is okay because we are all wired uniquely.
According to the American Phycological Association, Americans are one of the most stressed out in the world. The current stress level experienced by Americans is 20 percentage points higher than the global average. The country’s rate is similar to Louisiana’s, the most stressed state. 55% of Americans are stressed during the day. The amount of stress is compounded even further when a loved was ill. These statistics are not meant to scare you but for you to realize that you are not alone in the fight against stress. Stress is often a part of life despite our best efforts, which many people have learned to tolerate. And while it’s incredibly prevalent in the United States, understanding stress and the causes of stress and how to tackle it early can make a world of difference.
Coping Mechanisms on how to deal with stress after a child’s cancer diagnosis
Cancer is a significant stressor for patients and their families. A combination of essential supportive interventions and time helps many families cope with the stress that cancer and treatment may bring to the entire family. After a child’s cancer diagnosis, some patients, siblings, and caregivers develop persistent traumatic stress reactions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a condition that develops after a life-threatening experience that makes a person feel fear, helplessness, or horror. People with PTSD experience persistent and unwanted thoughts about the experience; nightmares; a desire to avoid people, places, or things associated with the experience; emotional numbing; feeling distant or cut off from others; and physical arousal (being anxious and easily startled). Your child is the most crucial reason you consider early stress prevention during and after your cancer journey. Parents may think they are protecting their children by hiding life’s stresses. Being an adult carries a multitude of pressures, and parents may try to keep their anxieties to themselves. However, a recent study in the Journal of Family Psychology indicates that children may pick up on their parents’ suppressed stress, increasing their stress levels. The stress your child may pick up from you may cause issues with how they cope with their cancer diagnosis and responsiveness to treatment. The best way to prevent this is to take care of your stressed self.
It can be hard to find the time to cope with stress, but there are some impactful and convenient ways to help yourself or a loved one:
Laughter has been found to lower levels of stress hormones, reduce inflammation in the arteries, and increase “good” HDL cholesterol. Try and get a little giggle in every day, tell a joke, watch a comedy flick, or make someone smile with a funny face!
This practice of inward-focused thought and deep breathing has reduced heart disease risk factors such as high blood pressure. Meditation’s close relatives, yoga, and prayer can relax the mind and body. An excellent guided option is using an app such as Headspace that provides mindfulness meditation right from your phone.
Every time you are physically active, whether you take a walk or play tennis, your body releases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins. Exercising not only melts away stress it also protects against heart disease by lowering your blood pressure, strengthening your heart muscle, and helping you maintain a healthy weight. Even just 20-30 minutes a day can make all the difference!
It’s impossible to escape stress when it follows you everywhere. Cut the cord, and avoid emails and TV news. Take time each day, even for 10 to 15 minutes, to take the edge off your stress. Simple things like a warm bath, listening to music, or spending time on hobbies, can give you a break from the stressors in your life.
Online Support Groups
If you don’t have health insurance, online support groups can be helpful. Look for local groups that are evidence-based, and focus on the area you’re struggling with, such as coping with cancer.
Most employers are offering some level of therapy for their employees. Ask your human resources department about employee assistance programs that you can take advantage of for free or at little cost.
State Health Department
Your state’s health department website may have helpful mental health services, including emotional support helplines, tips for mental wellness during an emergency, and a list of behavioral health providers.
Health Insurance Provider
If you decide you need to seek professional support from a therapist or licensed mental health counselor, your health insurance provider is an excellent place to start looking. Health insurance companies must cover services for mental health, behavioral health, and substance-use disorders comparable to physical health coverage. The company should have a database of clinicians who are accepting patients.
Get Help Through the Cancer Journey
If you are a family with a child who received a new cancer diagnosis, or if you know of a family who finds themselves in this challenging situation, please contact Here to Serve. Our team is ready to help families navigate this challenging new world in light of a childhood cancer diagnosis and provide support in many different ways. Please click on the Get Help button from our homepage. Our team at Here to Serve wishes you a beautiful spring season filled with less stress and an abundance of peace, love, and happiness!
By Sameera Rangwala, M.S., M.P.H
About the Author
Sameera Rangwala spent 10 years in the biotech industry. As a scientist and research professional, she uses her skills to blog and provide words of support to the cancer community.
All information on this blog is for informational and educational purposes only. Always consult a medical provider in your particular area of need before making significant changes in your medical decisions or lifestyle.