What is cancer counselling?

Cancer is a common and life-changing (often sadly life-ending) illness. Many people find themselves feeling alone on their cancer journey. This is where counselling can help.


According to the latest figures by Cancer Research UK, around 375,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer every year. That's more than 1,000 people every day. More than one in three people are likely to develop some form of cancer during their lifetime.

According to a recent document launched by Macmillan Cancer Support called ‘Facing the Fight Alone’, nearly one in four (23%) lack support from family and friends during their treatment and recovery. Even those with support often feel isolated and lonely by virtue of their illness and medical treatment experiences.

How can counselling help people affected by cancer?

There is no 'one size fits all' approach to cancer counselling. Different people opt-in for different reasons and at different junctions of their journey, just as for counselling or therapy decisions during other life events. Similarly, this choice can take courage, because not everybody may find it easy or wants to talk about how cancer is affecting them.

The experience of talking with someone independent, at a time set aside just for that purpose, can help to unburden and process the understandably difficult emotions which are accumulating.

It can also offer a safe and non-judgemental space to consider how to deal with potentially difficult choices; for example, with regards to treatment, how to tell others, or how to prepare for death in the case of a terminal diagnosis.

Some people, with the aid of counselling, start to re-prioritise their lives, and finally give themselves permission to fulfil long-held dreams, or generally start putting themselves first in a relationship.

Some emotional responses are common (and normal) among people affected by cancer, such as disbelief, denial, anger, guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, depression, anxiety and loneliness. An overarching feeling can be that of bereavement for the permanent or temporary loss of health, a certain way of life, security (e.g. health, finances, social status, spiritual or religious beliefs), loss of hope, aspirations and sense of self-worth. Often, people feel demoralised and ‘reduced to being only about cancer’.

Relational difficulties are not uncommon either, as the diagnosis can often be the catalyst for dealing with dissatisfaction and issues which may have built up over time. People become irritable and fearful. Family and friends may find it difficult to deal with the diagnosis, leaving the person with the illness to feel abandoned.

When is the right time to seek cancer counselling?

While the cancer journey is as individual as the person who goes through it, the following are some key moments when people may opt for counselling:

  • During a lengthy diagnosis process and before confirmation of a cancer diagnosis: to help deal with the fears and prepare for potential scenarios.
  • After diagnosis: to help deal with the emotional impact, provide some grounding and help think through helpful coping strategies for what may lie ahead.
  • During treatment: to assist with treatment difficulties (e.g. needle phobia, or an aversion to intravenous chemotherapy, anxiety attacks) or treatment side effects (e.g. hair loss or body image issues following a mastectomy).
  • After treatment: to assist with the start of life with/after cancer, once a person no longer has regular medical appointments, treatments or check-ups; this can leave people feeling insecure and unsure how to continue leading their working and personal lives.
  • In case of a terminal diagnosis, some people opt for counselling to deal with the impact of this news and to decide how to live the rest of their lives.

Due to cancer diagnosis and treatment, some people find themselves in the position of having to decide whether to make difficult lifestyle changes, e.g. change in diet and leaving out favourite foods, or stopping smoking and/or drinking alcohol.

Others are unable to continue with favourite past times, like sports or socialising. Especially where these activities or habits have become important in dealing with stress, having to abandon them can (initially) cause stress, anxiety and frustration. Counselling can assist in processing these difficult emotions and provide support in building resilience and determination to face up to these choices.

Family and friends often turn to counselling, as they can also find themselves under an emotional burden when most of the attention (understandably so) is on the person with cancer. Common emotional difficulties are anger, anxiety, depression, helplessness, guilt, loneliness, bereavement and loss.

Depending on where in their cancer journey a person opts for counselling or therapeutic support, there are some practicalities to consider. While most therapies are conducted in fixed weekly sessions, a person undergoing cancer treatment may require a more flexible approach, as treatment side effects may make regular attendance difficult (e.g. feeling sick and weak, low immune system or cognitive impairment). This, alongside possible alternatives like the use of telephone or Skype counselling, should be discussed with the practitioner. 

While a cancer diagnosis may leave one feeling as though they have little control over their own life, opting for counselling is an important choice everyone can exercise. Some people choose to have this support throughout their journey as a constant and predictable support when much else is uncertain.

How to access cancer counselling

A lot of hospitals, cancer charities, GP surgeries and private medical insurances offer short-term counselling (e.g. five sessions) at no cost. Similarly, private counselling is readily available, and you should be able to find a counsellor in your local area on the Counselling Directory.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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