Why Do People with Cancer See Therapists?
Jane Fior is a therapist who has been working with cancer patients and family members for the last twenty years. She has written about her own experience of cancer on the Yes to Life blog.
Although statistics tell us that one in two people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point, we probably won’t think of ourselves as a possible candidate until it actually happens.
No matter how sensitively the news is given (and unfortunately this isn’t always the case) it is a life changing moment. Suddenly you are pitched into a new world of hospital appointments, tests and scans, surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy. As your vocabulary broadens to take in the language of cancer, your normal life closes down to make space for its treatment and side effects. Apparently being positive is desirable but what does that actually mean? Should you be changing your diet? Your life style? Taking up yoga? Giving up coffee?
To complicate things further, your family and friends may react in unpredictable ways and you can find yourself bombarded with conflicting advice from well-meaning strangers. No wonder your emotions are often equally unpredictable to the point of wondering whether it is normal to feel so frightened or angry or bleak.
It is very annoying to be complimented on being brave when you have no choice in the matter.
It is very annoying to be complimented on being brave when you have no choice in the matter. It is hard when people imply that to survive you must be positive when in fact you feel that you have lost hope in the future. Carrying a sense of dread about your prognosis is hard to convey to other people, especially when you can see how upset they are for you already. In other words, who can you talk to about all this when you know you need support but at the same time are trying to hold everything together and not be solely defined as someone with cancer?
In an ideal world, anyone being treated for cancer would automatically have access to a range of supportive therapies, including counselling, provided by experienced practitioners to augment their medical regime. People who in the normal run of things would never have considered themselves in need of emotional support can find it invaluable to be able to talk things through confidentially with someone outside the family, someone who is impartial, informed about the likely medical trajectory and who understands just what a rollercoaster this can be.
The trouble with a cancer diagnosis is that it can trigger all sorts of old conflicts and difficulties and these are the kind of reactions that are difficult to navigate and understand on your own. For example, if you’ve lost someone close to you from cancer, it may be hard to separate your situation from theirs, even when your prognosis is good. If for whatever reason you have had to be very strong and independent in your life, the experience of being dependent on others can be very challenging. However unpleasant aspects of your treatment have been, you may have found it comforting to be physically cared for and so leaving hospital, rather than being a relief, can feel like being abandoned. The treatment itself may have left you with a changed body and long-term consequences and that can be very hard to adjust to.
Relationships can be painfully tested and do not always survive.
Sometimes cancer or the side effects of treatment can trigger unexpected and very difficult reactions in other people. Relationships can be painfully tested and do not always survive. In spite of legal provision, the work place is not always sympathetic to frequent absence and colleagues may not know how to react to your illness. And of course, the bottom line is that you are having to find a way to cope with insecurity and real anxiety about your future. This is why it is helpful to be able to confide in someone who will not judge you or take what you say at face value but will help you unravel why you feel as you do and how you might be able to help yourself.
The internet is a great source of information but needs to be used judiciously when you are looking for help with cancer. Cancer Research UK and Macmillan Cancer Support websites are invaluable and reliable resources, the specialist charities for the various tumour groups often have experienced nurses on their helplines. To find a suitable therapist, look for someone who not only has a general training but can show specific cancer experience, and for information about complementary and alternative approaches, the Yes to Life site has a useful directory which includes a listing for specialist counsellors.