Do Cancer Survivors Handle Stress Better or Worse Than Others?

The emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis is overwhelming. People who undergo cancer treatment come through recovery having learned how to deal with an immense amount of stress. Some individuals cope better than others. Research examining reactions to stress in cancer survivors has provided mixed results. Several studies suggest that cancer survivors are more resilient than their healthy counterparts, due to the fact that they have faced enormous stressors during their ordeal. Other evidence implies that people who have overcome cancer are hypersensitive to life stressors as a result of being traumatized from the course of their treatment. Because stress is known to have negative physical and psychological consequences, both extremely deleterious to recovery and future health, Erin S. Costanzo of the Department of Psychiatry and Carbone Cancer Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison wanted to find out if this segment of the population was at increased risk for negative stress outcomes.

Costanzo and her colleagues examined how daily stressors would affect cancer survivors and their quality of life (QOL) based on symptoms of pain, fatigue, and depression in relation to healthy individuals. Costanzo enlisted 111 cancer survivors and had them complete daily diaries detailing their stressful interactions over the course of 8 days. Cortisol samples were taken four times each day, and the participants were assessed for physical and psychological symptoms. The results were compared to the diaries of healthy participants. The study revealed that overall, cancer survivors coped as well with daily stressors as healthy individuals. Indeed, in some instances, the cancer participants were even more resilient at overcoming minor stressors. However, there was no evidence that the experience of going through a cancer treatment protocol provided enhanced coping resources in all areas. In particular, the cancer survivors were more sensitive to interpersonal and relationship stressors than the control group. “Results also highlight the importance for researchers and clinicians to focus not only on the distress associated with the experience of cancer, but also to attend to other more modest stressors in understanding the well-being of cancer survivors,” said Costanzo. She added, “Therapeutic interventions with stress management components that target strategies for coping with everyday life demands may have an added benefit of optimizing cancer survivors’ QOL.”

Costanzo, E. S., Stawski, R. S., Ryff, C. D., Coe, C. L., & Almeida, D. M. (2012, January 23). Cancer Survivors’ Responses to Daily Stressors: Implications for Quality of Life. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027018

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  • Sandy


    January 28th, 2012 at 5:26 AM

    I am a cancer survivor, but more importantly than that, I am a survivor. Period. Nothing fazes me now after facing that!

  • Sherry Chartrand

    Sherry Chartrand

    January 28th, 2012 at 6:14 PM

    I have found that the late effects of chemo and lymphedema to be very stressful and navigating the health care system horrible!

  • Elaine


    January 29th, 2012 at 12:09 AM

    So..people who make it through treatment handle hassles better than people who don’t or don’t have to?

    But people going through treatment have a harder time with relationship and interpersonal stressors? And of course everyone around you is either too solicitious or afraid.
    (yes, I’m simplifying a bit).
    So it makes sense… We learn resilience, but not to everything. Interesting work.

  • Marie Ennis-O'Connor (@JBBC)

    Marie Ennis-O'Connor (@JBBC)

    January 29th, 2012 at 3:09 AM

    This is an area of research which interests me very much. Cancer survivors consistently report ongoing struggles to achieve a balance in their lives and a sense of wholeness and life purpose after their life-altering experience (Ferrell, 2004). Existential and spiritual issues may also arise related to concerns about death and dying, having a new orientation to time and future, and changed values and goals. I think the answer to the question of whether cancer survivors handle stress better really comes down to the individual and their approach to life – having cancer doesn’t radically alter our personalities and unless we make a conscious effort to change, we handle cancer and life with pretty much the same coping mechanisms. For some of us, cancer can be the wake up call to change those mechanisms if they no longer serve us well.

  • Brenda


    January 29th, 2012 at 6:39 AM

    Everyone processes pain and stress differently.
    maybe it is not so much a cancer thing as it is just looking at individuals and how they each handle the general stress of life.
    But you would have to think that going through a bout with cancer and coming out on the winning end would make you way more capable of handling more life stresses than someone who has never (luckily) had to stare death in the face.

  • Kerigan


    January 30th, 2012 at 5:19 AM

    think they process it better- they have already been through so much

  • Oscar


    January 30th, 2012 at 3:34 PM

    Never easy to forget even minute details of an episode such as cancer survival..and no doubt it will leave a mark that will remain in your mind for the rest of your whether this makes you stronger or makes you fret about any future issues depends on your personality..

    And that is the same reason why it may make one more resilient while still making another super paranoid.

  • frank


    January 31st, 2012 at 9:53 AM

    cancer survivors would feel much more resilient in the face of any trouble after having won a battle that not everybody makes through..winning such a battle would give anybody more it would not create a fear because they are coming from a win!

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