Dealing with stress is something every one of us faces on a daily basis. Pile on a cancer diagnosis, not once – but twice, and it is stress overload for Afrika Shaw.
"God gives you - puts people in your life - to help you through the journey," Afrika Shaw told 2 Works for You anchor Karen Larsen.
Afrika will tell you she lives her faith and it has certainly been tested. The first test came in 1993, when physicians diagnosed her with stage 3 breast cancer. Nearly 20 years later, the cancer returned with a diagnosis of stage four. In addition to the often debilitating treatment, Afrika also battled feeling depressed.
Stress, both short-term and chronic, "can have direct adverse effects on a variety of immunological mechanisms; both animal and human studies have provided convincing evidence that these immune alterations are consequential for health, according to a 2003 study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University.
Stress also causes a physiological response with increases heart rate, faster breathing, muscle tension and a greater demand for oxygen to support the brain. Doctors say this can make our adrenaline go into overdrive. If the stress response lasts too long, it can be damaging to our health.
It is especially important for cancer patients to manage stress, according to the National Institutes of Health which published a study in 2010 that linked stress to cancer growth. The study concluded, "Chronic stress results in the activation of specific signaling pathways in cancer cells and the tumor microenvironment, leading to tumor growth and progression.”
"I wasn't thinking in the positive, I was thinking in the past,” Shaw said. “You have to get rid of the stress."
When the battle weighs her down, she tries a variety of ways to manage her stress, including:
- Breathing exercises
- Reading the Bible
- Walking two miles a day
- Talking with a Mind-Body Therapist and a Psychiatrist regularly
- Attending support groups
She also loves to incorporate dancing. When the clock strikes 12:30 p.m. on Thursdays at Cancer Treatment Centers of America – Southwestern campus in Tulsa, this 70-year old cancer patient a joins other patients, volunteers, caregivers and even doctors and staff in a flash mob dance right in the hospital’s main lobby. While upbeat music blares, patients dance with joy, stomp their feet, or simply wave their hands. On the day 2 Works for You was there, a patient wore a hot pink wig with a matching hot pink shirt with a saying that declared, "Attitude is everything!"
Attitude is everything, according to Lacy Richard, Mind-Body Therapist at CTCA-Tulsa. She is on staff to help cancer patients like Afrika manage the stress of a cancer diagnosis.
"I believe that when your body is happy it makes your heart happy, it make your brain happy," said Lacy Richard, MS, LPC-C.
To find your happy, the National Institutes of Health recommends these five techniques:
- 1. Set priorities: Decide what must get done and what can wait. It’s a way of picking our battles.
- 2. Stay in touch with people who can provide emotional and other support.
- 3. Avoid dwelling on problems. Focus on what you have accomplished, not what you haven’t.
- 4. Exercise regularly. Even 30 minutes a day of moderate walking can help boost mood and reduce stress.
- 5. Take time to do relaxing activities you enjoy--watch a movie, paint, listen to music, read, or take a warm bath.
The mind-body therapist at CTCA would add “know your limits” to that list from the NIH.
"While our doctors are the experts, we also want to make sure they also know where we are at in our body's process and having open communication helps everybody know your limits," Richards suggested.
Many people may hesitate to seek out professional counseling when under stress, but Shaw says it works. "There's doctors for ingrown toenail, there's a doctor for your brain. Whatever it takes to make you well, that's what you use."
And when the worst happens, try dancing. For where there is joy, there is hope… and where this is hope, Afrika said, there is life – even with terminal cancer.
"There's nothing you could do about it but live with it, love yourself and love your life and deal with it,” Shaw concluded. “That's all. Relax! "
Afrika said she plans to live until she is at least 95, with the help of God, love, laughter, and her doctors at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Tulsa.
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