Many of us are touched by cancer at some time in our lives, whether we've been diagnosed ourselves or know of someone who has been. Regardless of whether it’s yourself, a family member or a friend, a cancer diagnosis can bring difficult and painful feelings. Shock, grief, and fear are just some of the emotions you may deal with.
Counselling may be offered to the patient during or after their cancer treatment, but it can sometimes be beneficial for family members and loved ones, too. Talking to a counsellor experienced in cancer issues can ease the sense of isolation you may feel and help you find ways to face the challenges ahead.
How can counselling help?
Coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis is hard. Anxiety, stress and anger levels are heightened, and the idea of being in a life-threatening situation can be difficult to cope with. You may feel that you don’t want to burden your family and friends with your problems and fears. But, you don't have to bear the emotional issues on your own.
Counsellors are highly experienced and proficient in helping people with cancer and their families deal with the many emotional issues that cancer can cause. Talking to an experienced, empathetic professional can be somewhat of a relief when everyday life and relationships feel like they’ve been turned upside down. Having the support of a counsellor can really help you and your family manage and navigate the emotions and fears you may be experiencing.
In this video, psychotherapist Karin Sieger explains how cancer counselling can support people affected by cancer, including those with a diagnosis, as well as family and friends.
Counselling can help provide better coping strategies to support you during and after your treatment and deal with any mental health issues which may arise.
Research shows that counselling can help some people overcome the depression and anxiety cancer can cause. There’s also evidence that certain methods of counselling can help people deal with certain phobias about going through cancer treatments. For example, fear of injections or being confined to a small space during an MRI scan.
Having a place to talk about your feelings free of judgement can be very useful. It can help reduce the stress you face and improve your quality of life. Counselling may be offered to the patient as part of the cancer treatment, but it can sometimes be beneficial for family members, too.
Talking about it can help identify, treat and start to heal the pain and turmoil caused by these experiences and feelings. Talking about it can help create some mental and emotional space inside to be able to consider what to do next - irrespective, or even despite, what the diagnosis might be.
Dealing with the diagnosis
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, it can feel like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. There is often a lot of fear related to cancer; we fear the effects of the disease, the treatment, and the impact it may have on our loved ones and our future.
Although we know more about cancer and various forms of treatment than ever before, there is still a great deal of uncertainty that comes with a diagnosis. The thing is, cancer doesn’t just affect your physical health - it has a big impact on your mental well-being, too. It’s normal to feel lost and confused.
Fear of death is also something that can linger throughout treatment and beyond. Feelings of hopelessness and uncertainty around survival and death can all have a detrimental impact on our well-being. It is, therefore, no surprise to find the diagnosis overwhelming to deal with.
Coming to terms with a cancer diagnosis can have a significant emotional impact on the person, as well as their relatives and carers. But, beyond diagnosis, there are many other obstacles that can impact our mental health.
There are certain factors that can place people living with cancer at a heightened risk of developing common mental health conditions. You may be experiencing many new physical symptoms or side effects of your treatment. The physical symptoms of specific cancers can impact mental health, such as incontinence and sexual dysfunction. It can also be hard to come to terms with any changes in body image, such as weight or hair loss.
It’s common to experience a crisis of identity following a cancer diagnosis. When medical professionals assume responsibility for your recovery, it’s normal to feel like you’ve lost sense of who you are. You may feel that your new identity is a ‘cancer patient’, but try to remember that you are still the same person and focus on the things that make you who you are.
With terminal cases, counselling can be an invaluable tool for everyone close to the individual, and the individual themselves. A counsellor can help with coming to terms with the diagnosis, dealing with practicalities, and helping those dealing with grief.
Life after cancer treatment
Cancer treatment often takes over a person’s life. You, your family and friends are all focused on it, hoping that you will recover and move on from this difficult time in your life.
So, when a person recovers from cancer, you’d expect it to be a really happy and positive occasion. But, in reality, moving on with life after cancer can sometimes prove difficult. Instead of feeling overjoyed, you may be left with a feeling of emptiness, anxiety and isolation. For some people, seeing their medical team less often can be worrying.
Fortunately, the aftermath of cancer is a common and well-understood issue. You don’t need to suffer in silence and alone - other people are experiencing the same feelings as you. Post-treatment counselling can help you deal with the challenges that arise following a cancer experience. Such challenges may include:
- Addressing any emotional or psychological consequences of having survived cancer and invasive cancer treatments.
- Dealing with disfigurement or the loss of a body part (if treatment required surgery).
- Loss of one’s sense of self or identity, including loss of confidence.
- Stress and anxiety about returning back to work.
Talking to a child about cancer
Talking to children about cancer can be a frightening thought. It can be difficult to know how much to say but, although it can be hard, it’s really important to tell your children what’s happening. It can feel as though you’re protecting them by not talking about it but, without realising, it can cause them to feel frightened and worried.
What you choose to say will largely depend on the child’s age and level of maturity. For younger children, it is sometimes best to let them ask questions. Allow them the chance to ask you what they want to know. Try to use simple language to explain any changes in your appearance or lifestyle that they may notice. Focusing on practical elements, such as the details of your treatment, will also help them to understand what is happening.
Older children, on the other hand, might be less likely to open up about their own feelings. For this reason, it’s important to help them deal with how they feel, which might include any perceptions that they already have about cancer.
It can be helpful to let your child’s school know of the situation, so their teachers can keep an eye out for any anxious or disruptive behaviour. The school may also know about any additional support services available to your children.
Supporting a loved one
If someone close to you has been diagnosed with cancer, it will affect you. You, too, will find yourself on your own unique cancer journey. You may have been treated for cancer in the past, have already lost loved ones or are afraid of getting cancer yourself.
So, if someone you know has cancer, you may not know what to say - or worry that you’ll say the wrong thing. But, the truth is, there is no perfect phrase that is the ‘right’ thing to say. As long as you are open and sensitive to their feelings, you won’t go far wrong. Often, the most important things you can do are listen and keep in touch.
Some people worry that if they talk to their relatives or friend about cancer or their treatment, it will make them even more distressed. But, in reality, talking about the things we’re fearful of won’t make things worse - actually, talking helps. Your partner, relative or friend may be worried about many different aspects of cancer but, by asking them and understanding what they are facing, you’ll help them feel supported and less alone.
6 tips for supporting a loved one
Here are some tips to support your loved one when they're going through cancer:
- Let them know that you have the time to sit and listen if they need to talk.
- Provide a space to listen, without judgement, where possible.
- If they tell you they’re afraid or worried, it’s important to let them be sad or upset. Try not to tell them “not to worry” - this can make it seem like their fears aren’t justified.
- Remember, silences don’t have to be awkward. Don’t feel the need to fill the gaps - allow them to say as much or as little as they feel able to.
- Our actions can often speak louder than our words. Touching their hand or putting an arm around them may help and comfort them.
- If they don’t ask for your advice, try not to give it - even if you’ve experienced cancer before. If they want your advice, they can ask you for it.
What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?
There are currently no official rules or regulations stipulating what level of training a counsellor dealing with a cancer patient or survivor needs. However, it is recommended that you check to see if your therapist is experienced in this area.
Another way to assure they have undergone specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation representing counsellors dealing with cancer.
Cancer can affect not only the sufferer but also partners and family. In these cases, you may wish to seek couples and/or family counselling for additional support. Some people also find it beneficial to join a support group with others going through cancer.
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