Living with Cancer

Learning to Relax

Having cancer can be very stressful and frightening. This information is for people with cancer and people looking after someone with cancer. It provides tips on how to relax and cope better.

Cancer can bring many problems and anxieties. You may be trying to deal with cancer treatment and its side effects. You may also be worrying about money or your job, or trying to take care of a family. People often find that their usual ways of coping are no longer enough.

It's quite normal to feel tense, fearful or even angry. But there are things you can do to help you manage better and find times when you can relax

How do people react?
Some people become short tempered, anxious, over-active or lose all their energy. They can't sit still or eat. Other people become tired, and feel as if they're thinking in a fog. They can become very sad, teary and overwhelmed. Either way, it can be hard to think clearly and logically. Feeling like you're not coping may make all these emotions feel worse.

Tension can cause headaches, stomach aches, a sore back and shoulders, indigestion and difficulty sleeping. Over a long time, anxiety and tension can make people exhausted and physically ill. You may even become depressed.

What you can do
Whether you have cancer yourself, or are looking after someone with cancer, it makes sense to take good care of yourself. Eat well, exercise (if able), get enough rest and make an effort to pamper yourself sometimes.
It's possible to learn how to cope with tension and a feeling of panic. There's no ‘right answer'. Different things work for different people. Experiment and use what works best for you.

Try not to make too many changes at once. Choose one or two things at a time to act upon. The key is to remain in control of your problems and anxieties, not to feel that they are in control of you.

Learn about cancer
Usually people fear the things they don't understand. With cancer, we fear the unknown and the uncertainty and ask questions like:
  • 'Will I die?'
  • 'Will I be in pain?'
  • 'Will I look awful?'
  • 'Will I see the children grow up?'
Learn about your cancer and its treatment. Find out about any possible side effects and what can be done about them. Many people find the more they know about their cancer, the more ‘in control' they feel. And they're better able to cope with myths and misunderstandings about cancer or depressing stories that other people tell them. Remember, what's happened to others won't necessarily happen to you. Only your own doctor can explain your illness and what you can expect.

Doctors and other health professionals, such as nurses and social workers, are usually happy to answer your questions. Writing the questions down before the visit can help you to remember them. It can also help to take someone with you.

If you don't understand what your doctor says, ask your doctor to explain it in a different way. Doctors often use technical words without realising it.

Talk it over
It's much easier to see a problem clearly when you're talking about it with someone else. Talking often helps people to find new ways of dealing with problems. And it helps to share your feelings and fears rather than bottling them up.

Find someone you feel comfortable with. It might be someone close to you – a family member or friend. It may be your doctor or nurse, or another health professional, support worker or religious adviser.

You might prefer professional counselling from a psychologist or social worker. About six sessions should help you deal better with anxiety or stress. Longer term support is available. Your doctor may be able to provide you with a referral. Always check that the counsellor is professionally trained.

Join a support group
In a cancer support group, you can talk to others who've been in a similar situation to yours, and find out how they've managed. Many groups also teach relaxation, meditation and problem solving techniques. Many people say that just being with others who've been through cancer and being able to chat about how you feel helps them a lot.

People looking after someone with cancer may like to join a carers' support group. Call NCSM’s Resources & Wellness Centre at 03-2698 7300 for more information. 

Put yourself first when you need to
Think of yourself and your own needs. Take time out when you need it, and rest when you're tired. This is as important for carers as it is for people with cancer.

Allow yourself to say ‘no' to things you can't cope with or to visitors you don't want to see, or get someone else to say ‘no' for you.

Eat a balanced diet
Sometimes you may not feel much like eating or preparing good food. But eating a balanced diet (even if you don't eat a lot) will help you to feel as well as possible. The dietitian at your treatment centre can provide information on diet or see the Nutrition and cancer section for more.

Even gentle exercise can help you loosen up, release tension and feel better and more relaxed. Some people find that jogging – long, slow, regular running – is good. Others prefer walking, swimming or some other activity. If you have cancer, check with your doctor before you start an exercise program. 

Get enough sleep
Relaxation techniques can help you sleep. If you're lying awake worrying about something you haven't done, get up and do it, or watch some television, or read – then try sleeping again. If you have a sleep problem that's worrying you, ask your doctor for help or for a referral to a sleep clinic.

Organise your time
Don't try to do everything. Concentrate on doing the things that really matter, and forget about less important things. Try making lists of the most important things to be done. 

Accept help
Accept any offers of help. Most people really want to help, but often don't know how to. Make a ‘to do' list and see who can help you work through it.

Ask friends to drive you to hospital, cook meals, pick up the kids, walk the dog, clean the house or hang out the washing.

Do things you enjoy
Keep up your hobbies. Try to get out of the house regularly, even if only for short outings. See a funny film – laughing is a wonderful way of feeling good, even if it's the last thing you thought you could do. Or escape into some music for a while, dancing, take a long relaxing bath, do gardening, do some artwork, beading– anything you find relaxing or satisfying.

Seek religious or spiritual support
Religion is an important source of support for some people. Talk to someone who represents the faith you respect. Don't be put off just because you haven't attended formal services regularly, or because you're not sure what you believe. Their concern is to help you sort through your ideas, doubts and beliefs and find peace of mind.

Try different ways of approaching problems
Sometimes problems can crowd around and you can't see any way out. Try taking some time to sit down quietly. Start by relaxing, maybe try a few deep breaths. Then try to sort quietly through the things that are worrying you.

You might like to do this alone, or with someone else: a friend, family member or professional counsellor.

Start by listing your different problems and worries, both large and small. Then choose one or two that you want to work on – things that can be changed or helped. Then list things you can do. Write down every solution you can think of, even the ones that seem silly. Select one or more solutions that seem realistic or possible, and give them a try. After a reasonable period, sit back again and decide how successful you've been.

Take control by calming down
Learning to relax your body and your mind can help you to feel good and in control. You'll feel calmer and more capable of thinking practically about your problems. Relaxation methods you could try include physical relaxation, meditation, hypnotherapy, yoga and t'ai chi.

The best way to choose a teacher or a course is by personal recommendation from someone you trust. Health professionals at your hospital, such as physiotherapist, occupational therapist or social worker, may be able to provide you with information about relaxation classes at your hospital.
Annie Angle, cancer nurse (Dip. Oncology Nursing, Royal Marsden, London) 

Body relaxation techniques
Learning to relax the muscles of your body helps your mind to relax and become calm.

You might join a relaxation class. You could buy a relaxation CD to listen to at home. Many inexpensive CDs or podcasts are available through shops, cancer support groups, health professionals and iTunes, and some are available free online. Choose one that suits you.

Learn to recognise when your body is tense. Sit quietly for a moment and ‘listen' to what your body tells you. Is your breathing fast and shallow, or is it deeper and more relaxed? Are your hands clenched? Can you sit still easily? If you recognise when you're tense, you can do something about it.

Give yourself a regular time to relax – maybe 10 or 15 minutes twice a day, or more if you wish. It helps to turn off the phones and leave a ‘do not disturb' note on the door.

Try this simple relaxation
Find a warm, quiet place. Sit in a comfortable chair, hands resting loosely. Or lie on your back, arms resting by your side.

Close your eyes and let yourself slow down. Breathe in gradually and deeply. Hold the air for a few seconds. Then let it go, breathe out, feel your body go loose and limp. Let the tension slip away as the air flows out. Repeat. With each breath out, feel more tension slide from your body. You may begin to feel calmer and more peaceful.

Meditate, and quieten your mind
If you learn to quieten your mind, the muscles of your body become calm and relaxed as well, and your heart and breathing slow down. This helps you to approach problems more calmly, and to find better ways of dealing with them. It helps you to feel better and more in control of your life.

Meditation takes longer to learn than relaxation, and it needs to be practised regularly. 10 to 40 minutes each day is usually enough, though some people choose to spend more time.

There's no ‘right' meditation method or teacher. Choose one that works for you. There are also many books and podcasts available.

Have a massage
Massage can be extremely relaxing, and will often relieve tension and discomfort and make you feel more comfortable. A good massage can make you feel wonderful.

Gentle massage can be very pleasant to share with family or friends, or have a professional massage. Look for a massage therapist who has had experience with people with cancer. Many therapists will visit people in their homes or hospital. A massage in hospital can be a marvellous way of feeling good again.

Is hypnotherapy for you?
Hypnotherapy can relax your body and mind deeply. It can help you to deal with anxiety and solve problems more effectively. It may also help to control pain and treatment side effects such as nausea.

Remember, you can't be hypnotised if you don't want to be, and when you're under hypnosis, you can't be made to do anything you don't want to.

It's important to go to a hypnotherapist who is properly qualified. This means a psychologist or doctor who practises hypnotherapy.

Or t'ai chi?
T'ai chi is the ancient Chinese art of ‘moving meditation'. It's slow, gentle, rhythmical and continuous movements, like slow dancing or swimming in air. In the body, it fosters a sense of physical control. In the mind, it brings stillness and balance. It requires about 30 minutes of practice each day.
Yoga: relaxation for your mind and body
Yoga combines exercises for the body with ‘exercises' for the mind. It can help people to find inner strength to deal with the daily stresses of life.

Like meditation, yoga is a skill that takes time to learn.

Different teachers take different approaches. But there are forms of yoga to suit everyone, regardless of age or health. The physical exercises can be modified to suit what you're able to do.
Annie Angle, cancer nurse (Dip. Oncology Nursing, Royal Marsden, London)

NCSM’s wellness classes
The Resource & Wellness Centre (RWC) is a one-stop cancer information centre. Opened in 2003, the Centre serves to provide patients, family members and caregivers with support and information on cancer. RWC has a relaxed and friendly environment to put visitors at ease, and we believe in the importance of healing the whole person – the body, mind and spirit. 

RWC provides a variety of wellness and educational programmes and complementary therapies for people affected by cancer. Our wellness classes are available, conducted by professionals or trained survivors, open to cancer survivors and free of charge. Please call the RWC at 03-2698 7300 to confirm if the classes are on.
  • Reiki (Monday and Friday, by appointment)
    Universal energy flows through all of us but at times this flow of energy can become blocked during periods of stress and illness. Reiki, an immensely simple yet powerful method of healing can remove these blockages and restore the flow of energy around the body. Qualified Reiki Master, Christopher John, offers his services.
  • Chinese ink painting classes (Tuesday, 10am-1pm)
    Datin Alice Chai, a cancer survivor, took up Chinese inkbrush painting when she was treated for cancer in 2006. She found painting to be very therapeutic: it enhanced her patience, reduced her anxiety and she experienced spiritual healing too.  She decided to share her painting skills with other cancer survivors at NCSM. 
  • Laughter yoga (Monday, 11am-12pm)
    Laughter Yoga has been clinically proven to reduce stress and improve physical well-being. There are no difficult poses and high expectations – it’s all about having fun and learning to be free. The class ends with relaxation and guided visualisation.

    Some people who attend Laughter Yoga say they often experience a sense of lightness and find that they are able to laugh at things that used to make them angry. 
  • Yoga (Saturday, 8-9.30am)
    Based on the belief that our body and breaths are connected to our minds, asanas (poses) are designed to ease tensed muscles, tone internal organs and improve flexibility of body joints and ligaments. Classes are held every Saturday, 8am-10am, conducted by Carol Chew of the Malaysian Yoga Society.
  • Qigong (Sunday, 10am-12pm)
    Master Yep Kien Eng teaches Zhi Nen Qigong, which involves exercises and movements designed to conserve and build life energy (qi). 
  • Dance for fitness (Wednesday every fortnight, 10am-12pm)
    Puan Umi, an aerobic instructor and cancer survivor herself, leads these fun dance sessions. Open only to women survivors.
  • Far Infrared (FIR) Sauna Cabin (Monday-Friday, 8.30am-4.30pm)
    Just sit in the cabin for 20 minutes to rid your body of toxins through sweating. The FIR rays penetrate your skin, causing blood vessels to dilate and promoting better blood circulation. Open to the public but only complimentary for cancer survivors (the normal price for each FIR session is up to RM50).
  • Beading classes
    Beadwork is the art and craft of attaching beads by stringing them together. Pink Unity [anchor to Pink Unity under section A] holds beading classes as part of their activities, and people are welcome to join and learn basic beading techniques. 
  • Empowerment programmes/talks
    Talks and workshop are scheduled monthly for cancer survivors, caregivers and the public. Topics include cancer care, support and education. Presenters are medical professionals, complementary therapists and people whose work is related to the holistic wellbeing of cancer patients. Information on these programmes is publicised through our website, Facebook and the media.