The Psychosocial: When do I Seek Psychotherapy After a Cancer Diagnosis?
This is a question that lingers in the minds of many people before they actually seek help. Engaging in therapy is not the same as needing an x-ray because of a pain in your shoulder or going to the dentist because you have a toothache. There is often doubt or trepidation about whether it is a necessary intervention or means of support. I think this is associated with the stigma of mental health but also the signs or symptoms that you may need help are not as clear cut. This becomes even less evident with a crisis like a cancer diagnosis when treatment moves very quickly and there may not be time or energy to tune in to your mental health or what you might be feeling.
In my work over the last decade with cancer patients, I often advise that therapy can pre-emptively help mitigate some of the psychological/emotional impact that a diagnosis and treatment brings. Clinically speaking, it can be the difference between putting out fires with a big firehose or having a good battery powered smoke detector.
Seeking therapy as soon as possible can help to process some heavy feelings associated with being told, “you have cancer” and what that means for your physical appearance, your identity, your relationships and your hopes and dreams for the future. Having someone that you trust, who is outside of your support circle can help you work through some of the choices you may need to make about your healthcare and give you a safe space to experience your feelings about having cancer and going through treatment, without worrying about the feelings of your friends or family.
It may not seem like a priority upfront when there are so many appointments to deal with the cancer itself, however, compared with their healthy peers, research shows young adults with cancer are at higher risk of experiencing poor psychological well-being and distress that can last for many years after treatment. Research also shows that emotional distress often manifests as acute episodes of sadness, anxiety, and frustration in response to disease-related events, and compared with age-related norms of functionality, impaired physical functioning from treatment or side-effects strongly correlates with the mental and emotional well-being of young adults.
As a young woman with cancer it is important for you to be assessed for relevant mood triggers like loss of autonomy and associated guilt stemming from the conflict of being dependent on people for your needs. Having a therapist also ensures that repeated assessments capture fluctuations in your mood and screen for any distress which may lead to more complicated long-term issues.
Finding a therapist who specializes in cancer can be tricky. If you are being seen in a major cancer centre, you may be referred to a clinical psychologist or social worker in the psychosocial oncology department upfront. This is an amazing resource to explore, even if you are not ready to commit to it. If you are not in a cancer centre, it is worth looking into what resources are available in your hospital. Otherwise, in some provinces there are organizations like Wellspring, Hope & Cope or Callanish Society where you can get cancer specific counselling. Finally, there is the option of seeking a therapist in the community. You can check out how to find one here. – Shawna Ginsberg