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Answers to Your Questions about Cancer Counseling

by Pam Abernethy, MED, LPC

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Cancer can take a huge emo­tional toll on both the individual who has been diagnosed and his or her family. While they are deal­ing with the physical side effects of cancer and its treatment, few people recognize that they are also struggling with an emotional condition called can­cer trauma. Unfortunately, many people with cancer and their families do not seek professional help when dealing with this trauma.

If you are having a hard time adjust­ing to life after cancer, a professional counselor can help. The following are answers to some common questions about professional counseling.

Is there something wrong with me if I’m in treatment for cancer and need counseling, too?
Cancer can be a very frightening diagnosis. It may cause you to redefine your life, your family, and the future. No aspect of your life is left untouched. Cancer is an emotional tornado with the potential for tremen­dous upheaval.

You may go from hope and optimism to anger and depression during a single course of treatment. Honest examina­tion of these feelings can reduce the toll they take on you during treatment. For many people, the diagnosis of cancer also means they have lost control of their health. Most people do not know how to emotionally handle such loss of control.

Seeking professional counseling after cancer does not mean you have a serious mental illness. It simply offers you and your family emotional strength and support when it is needed most.

Is it natural to feel different about life after a diagnosis of cancer?
It is common to see life differently after can­cer. It can become difficult to see beyond your next course of chemotherapy. This is compounded by not being able to pre­dict what will happen next. How you handle this change of viewpoint, though, can have a major effect on your medical treatment. Researchers have found that women with breast cancer had a better recovery rate when they combined coun­seling with their medical treatment. Why? We don’t know exactly why, but researchers project that it may be related to developing a more positive view of the future.

How can I know if my family and I are affected by cancer trauma?
Stress is common for people who have to deal with a prolonged illness. How­ever, one sign of cancer trauma is that you and your family begin dealing with this stress in unhealthy ways. Some examples of unhealthy ways of dealing with stress include increased use of alcohol, misuse of prescription drugs, eating disorders, angry outbursts, and isolation. The children of adults with cancer may have problems at school, nightmares, and behavioral problems.

Seeking professional counseling after cancer does not mean you have a serious mental illness.

Author of Article photo

Pam Abernethy

Another common symptom of cancer trauma is sleep difficulty. Sleep will periodically be difficult because of pain or treatment side effects. But sleep dif­ficulty that comes from worry or anxiety is a symptom of cancer trauma.

If I choose to get counseling, should I inform my doctor?
It is important that all members of your treatment team be aware of your treatment and work together. Regular reports from your counselor will provide valuable infor­mation to your treating oncologist.

Is it normal for family members to become depressed?
Cancer is a family disease – all members are af­fected. Family and friends can also experience feelings of loss associated with the cancer diagnosis. However, they often mask their fears and anxiety because they don’t want to burden their loved one who is facing cancer.

What kind of help is available?
Cancer trauma takes many forms and, therefore, requires a variety of approaches:

  • Individual Counseling
    With individual counseling, people with cancer and family members meet with a counselor individually to learn coping strategies designed to decrease the emotional toll cancer can take on individuals.
  • Family Counseling
    Families may need to face the illness together. To­gether, they can be more supportive to each other and less traumatized by the treatment process. In family counsel­ing, a counselor works with the family as a unit, rather than indi­vidually.
  • Support Groups
    These groups of indi­viduals facing similar circum­stances provide support and in­formation, which can help reduce anxiety and foster emotional healing.
  • Relaxation Training and Pain Man­agement
    Side effects and pain caused by treatment can be mitigated with relaxation training and pain manage­ment strategies.

Cancer is frightening; it’s unpredict­able; and it can take over a family’s life and disrupt all aspects of normal func­tioning. The good news is that help is available to make this journey easier.

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Pam Abernethy is the owner of Renaissance Oncology Counseling Associates in Richardson, TX.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2011.