Over a million Americans are diagnosed with cancer each year. Understandably, this diagnosis often brings anxiety and/or fear. Many people living with cancer right now are facing all the challenges this brings.
Every illness has an emotional component. With cancer, as with all major diseases, a comprehensive plan including appropriate medical treatment as well as social and emotional support, is optimal for the best outcome. Psychotherapy can be valuable for helping patients manage and cope with complicated feelings and changes that arise.
Therapy is also helpful for people who’ve survived the disease, and now seek to resume a normal lifestyle. Post-cancer adjustment can be difficult for some people.
The idea of serious disease, including pain, may frighten people. A diagnosis as serious as cancer is shocking, and many people don’t initially know how to handle the reactions they’re having. Patients fear medical procedures, disfigurement, pain and death. They worry what will happen to themselves, their families, their jobs. How will they manage? What will happen? Can they handle what’s coming? They ask themselves, "Am I going to die?"
Having a good medical team that you trust is your first priority. However, there will be a range of inner emotional responses, and many social and practical changes that will be occurring as you are entering treatment. Working with a therapist experienced in helping people manage the complicated feelings and adjustments accompanying serious disease and pain can be useful.
People have strong ideas and beliefs about illness, pain, healing and asking for help and support. These include ideas about being sick in general, having cancer in particular, medical treatments, and what the future holds.
Some of these ideas are based on things they’ve heard or conclusions they’ve drawn (for example, that life will be diminished in the future, nobody in their family lived past a certain age, they might have no control over what will happen to them, or they won’t be able to handle the procedures).
There may be stories about friends and family members who’ve had cancer that lead to fear, and sometimes there can be a lack of coping skills for handling medical conditions and pain. There is often a need for help from others with emotional support, re-arranging job, childcare, household duties, etc.
When someone is trying to cope with the initial shock of the diagnosis itself, and facing decisions about what to do medically, it can be terribly challenging to also have to re-work an entire lifestyle to accommodate all the changes.
Working with an experienced therapistcan help people move through the different stages of diagnosis, treatment and follow up. It is possible to acquire coping skills and social support, handle body image, a sense of loss and medical concerns, manage complicated emotional and family needs, and the practical aspects of dealing with a serious disease.
Kathi Whitten, LCSW 2012