Stress Management Is The Key To Complete Cancer Recovery

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The known risk factors for cancer, according to the NCI and other authorities, have never included any important psychological factors, such as stress, forgiveness, trauma, and psychological distress[1]. A recent report from Science claimed that 66% of cancer-causing mutations cannot be explained by genetic or environmental factors, and therefore, can only be considered due to randomness or “bad luck.”[2]  This is very disturbing to cancer patients and their families. 

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), cancer is not an isolated disease but a life status, which could be the result of the pollution, slowing or stasis of qi-blood flow in the body (deficiency of body’s defending system). Therefore, treatment of cancer should focus on changing the inner environment, cultivating zheng (strengthen immune system) and dispelling xie (toxins or devil). For instance, orange trees will grow sweet oranges in the south, but grow bitter Zhi in the North, which is not the result of mutation, but the outcome of environmental change. Psychological stress is one of the major environmental factors that have not been fully accounted for in cancer research or treatment.   

Research has found that stress is the causal factor for 80-90% of primary doctor’s visits in the U.S. [3,4] suggesting that stress, including many negative emotions expressed by the stress response (physical or mental stress), has become main risk factor for many diseases, including cancers. A systematic review has reported that people with stress are associated with higher cancer incidence in healthy populations, and that poor survival rate and higher mortality are noted among stressed cancer patients[5].   

Lab studies reveal that stress helps speed up tumor growth in animals, while stress-related cortisol creates an ideal environment for rapid cancer cell growth, including lowering the immune system, depleting the body of adrenaline, creating acidic environment and increasing glucose within the system. Unfortunately, psychological intervention or stress management have never formally become part of conventional cancer treatment, nor are they available in most cancer centers, yet cancer-phobia is one of major factors leading to cancer-related mortality. The lack of psychological consideration and related intervention may be one of main reasons for treatment failure or cancer reoccurrence. 

From our understanding of scientific evidence and the long-term clinical experience, we, the faculty at University of Maryland Center for Integrative Medicine, started to fill in the gap in cancer rehabilitation with a focus on stress management, on changing patients’ attitudes toward cancer, and changing the environment that cultivated cancer growth in the first place. We have recommended three key aspects for cancer patients to start systematically managing their stress and anxiety, so as to achieve complete recovery from cancer, and effectively prevent from reoccurrence. The three aspects are as following.   

  1. ATTITUDE OR MENTALITY CHANGE. Learn to make friends with diseases like cancer and get rid of cancer-phobia.  It is well known that stress is not about what happened, but how we respond to what happened. Our belief about cancer determines how we respond to it. Therefore, it is important to redefine what it means to have been diagnosed with cancer. Most current medical treatments of cancer focus on the cancer or tumor itself (with the exception of immunotherapy), but lack exploration and treatment of the root causes of cancer. According to TCM, there are three different levels or models of healing in human diseases. (1) The first is the mind-wisdom model: how you see the world, how you see life, and how you see illness. When your mind-wisdom model changes, your mindset changes dramatically, and many psychological, mental, and emotional illnesses disappear. (2) The second is the life-style model, i.e. how you live everyday life. Most physical illness or bodily diseases are caused by unhealthy lifestyle, so you have to change your lifestyle and reorganize your behavior pattern to achieve wellness. (3) The third is the medical model, which focuses on residual parts of the disease to minimize the harm, and exists to supplement the former two models. If you have a good mind-wisdom and lifestyle model as the foundation, you will not have much feeling of stress or anxiety and the medical model becomes much easier. 

  2. MANAGE STRESS AND ANXIETY with simple but effective mindfulness skills, and build a present, positive and detached mindset. Even in the face of difficult situations, we can choose how to respond, rather than being carried away by stress and fear. Learning effective stress/anxiety management techniques can improve well-being, increase optimism and decrease worry.[6] We have developed a Breathing-Based Mindfulness Therapy (BBMT) for stress and anxiety management, which is much simpler than Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR), but has been proven clinically feasible and effective among addiction patients. Through a simple counting of breaths method and daily mindfulness practice, the BBMT can rapidly build mindfulness skills and effectively manage stress and cancer-phobia. Mindfulness skills may include counting breaths, acceptance, pause, labeling, separating, letting-go and positive reframing.  

  3. PRACTICE OF EVIDENCE-BASED MIND-BODY EXERCISES, effectively cultivating energy and strength for a complete recovery. If BBMT or mindfulness is mainly working on the mind state, the mind-body exercises, such as qigong and tai chi, will activate the body’s self-healing potential for reducing stress and increasing immunity, as well as build-up physical strength for the recovery. For those who have short attention for mindfulness practice, mind-body exercise can be easily integrated into daily life. There are many reported cases that cancer patients defeated cancer phobia and the tumor with mind-body exercises in China.[7] 

In short, research shows that stress is the leading psychological factor for many diseases in the US, including cancer. However, current treatment for cancer focuses on the physical tumor, while lacking effective means for dealing with psychological distress. We would like to call for more attention to treatment of psychological aspects in cancer, and propose a more complete recovery with stress management as the key.


  1. National Cancer Institute, “Risk Factors for Cancer”. 

  2. M. A. Nowak, & B. Waclaw,  Genes, environment, and “bad luck.” Science; 24 Mar 2017. 355 (6331), pp. 1266-1267.

  3. Avey H, Matheny KB, Robbins A, Jacobson TA. Health care providers’ training, perceptions, and practices regarding stress and health outcomes. J Natl Med Assoc. 2003;95(9):833, 836-845.

  4. Nerurkar A, Bitton A, Davis RB, Phillips RS, Yeh G. When Physicians Counsel About Stress: Results of a National Study. JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173(1):76-77.

  5. Chida, Y, Hamer M, Wardle J,  Steptoe A. Do stress-related psychosocial factors contribute to cancer incidence and survival? Nature – Clinical Practice Oncology, 2008; 5(8)466-75.

  6. Chen K, “Qigong therapy for stress management.”  Pp. 428-448 in Lehrer PM, Woolfolk RL and Sime WE (eds.)  Principals and Practice of Stress Management, Third Edison. New York: Guilford Publications. 2007.

  7. Chen K, & Yeung R, 2002. “Exploratory studies of qigong therapy for cancer in China.” Integrative Cancer Therapies. 1(4): 345-370.

Dr. Kevin Chen is an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and president of the World Institute for Self-Healing, Inc. With Chinese origin and a life-long Qigong meditation practice, Dr. Chen is among the few scientists in the U.S. who has both extensive knowledge of Qigong as well as active involvement in Qigong and meditation research. Dr. Chen has extensive experience using Qigong to facilitate health and healing in people facing cancer, and is offering a 7-day residential self-healing retreat for cancer patients at Eastover Retreat Center, April 4-11, 2020. Visit for details and to register.