What is a Cancer Therapist?
A cancer therapist specializes in helping people through the lived experience of cancer including diagnosis, treatment, and post treatment – survivor issues, as well as death, dying and letting go. Cancer is a medical diagnosis, but it extends well beyond the physical body. People living with cancer are often additionally challenged with vocational issues, family/friends/relationship/marital problems, financial/insurance complications and of course existential and identity questions.
Cancer therapists understand the challenges the physical condition, treatment and side effects commonly present. In addition they are familiar with the psychological and cognitive issues which often surface. In general, people living with cancer commonly experience some depression and anxiety. Some experience cognitive distress after diagnosis evidenced by mental “fogginess”, forgetfulness, difficulty focusing or sleeping. Many experience feelings of fear, anger, resentment or alienation at some point during the experience.
Cancer survivors may also suffer from a more serious set of symptoms collectively known as Post-traumatic stress disorder (which is most common to those surviving traumatic life threatening events such as military combat, rape or natural disasters). Some studies estimate that up to 1/3 of survivors meet full criterion for PTSD at some point post-treatment. In one study 4 out of 10 survivors reported at least one PTSD symptom 10 years post remission.
A cancer therapist has spoken with many different individuals who have coped with and lived through the cancer experience. They are familiar with a myriad of quality of life issues, effective coping tools and resources. At the same time, Cancer therapists also know the cancer experience is highly individual. They utilize their knowledge and skills as a mental health clinician combined with their knowledge of cancer experiences to help clients effectively navigate their road with cancer, given their environment, social support, personality and circumstances.
There is no “one size fits all” for coping effectively with cancer. The experience of living with cancer is very personal and unique to each person. As Jimmie Holland, the founder of the field of psycho-oncology (cancer psychology) said:
"….The human side of cancer is all encompassing; it's about you, your surroundings, and your experience of the illness."
Cancer psychology is all encompassing; coping effectively with cancer intersects the physical, the social and the psychological.
As a cancer therapist, I have spoken with hundreds of cancer patients, read hundreds of journal articles and spent thousands of hours on the subject clinically. I have also lived the experience personally. At age 19 I was diagnosed with lymphoma, I dramatically changed my diet (macrobiotics), dropped out of college, lost my “normal” life, lost my spleen, lost my hair, completed chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The treatments caused me to develop hypothyroidism, left physical scars on my body and mind as well as damaged my ovaries. For more than ten years after treatments, I did not have a period and was told I would never have children. Fortunately the doctors were not correct and I have two little boys today… My experience with cancer was recently covered in the book “Drinking the Dragon” by Dr. Patricia Ariadne. I also penned a chapter on the psychological experience of cancer in NEWSWEEK journalist Jamie Reno’s book “Hope begins in the Dark”.
More than anything, sometimes a person going through cancer just needs someone to talk with outside their immediate circle who can listen without expectation. A cancer therapist is trained to do just this! Additionally, I have the personal experience with cancer to assist us both in understanding what your personal journey will be.