How counseling can help you cope with cancer

How counseling can help you cope with cancer

Piedmont’s Cancer Center takes a holistic and individualized approach to cancer care. Counseling is one of the services that allows us to meet the personalized needs of the people we serve.

Counseling can be a valuable tool for coping with cancer, whether you are newly diagnosed, undergoing treatment, a survivor, a family member or a caregiver.

"Counseling is not something that all people seek, but research shows that cancer patients who get emotional support through counseling have better outcomes," says Mary Lynn Hemphill, LCSW, a social worker and counselor at Piedmont Cancer Center. "Counseling is an opportunity to develop strength. It's not a weakness when you recognize you want to do something better or gain more insight. It's a positive step toward empowerment."

Benefits of counseling

"Counseling can be extraordinarily practical," says Hemphill. "You don't have to have experienced a trauma to benefit from counseling. A counselor is a resource connector. The resource they connect you to may be something that already exists inside yourself that you’ve lost track of, like hope or your sense of humor. Or it may be a practical resource, such as learning positive self-talk, how to communicate with your physician or how to manage your workload during treatment."

Counseling can help you:

  • Create an action plan with goals to address your primary concerns and barriers to personal growth

  • Develop coping strategies

  • Examine your life experiences and use the strategies that have worked well for you in the past

  • Express your feelings without fear of judgment  

  • Find resources, such as transportation, insurance counseling, financial assistance, long-term counseling or psychiatric care

  • Gain empowerment

  • Improve communication skills

You don't have to have everything figured out

"Many times, just naming the emotion such as fear, sadness or anger helps normalize it," says Hemphill. "You don't have to have everything figured out from the get-go. It's normal to be afraid you may not be able to pay your bills, to wonder if you'll look the same after treatment, or to worry about how to tell your boss or children you have cancer."

She adds, "Many people are wary that they are not able to put into words what is distressing them. Counseling is a conversation to help break down concerns into manageable segments and figure out where to start on a practical or emotional issue that is the most demanding.”

What not to expect from counseling

"A good counselor isn't someone who tells you what to do," says Hemphill. "They'll help you look at what has worked for you in the past and help you make adjustments from a place of strength rather than fear."

Counseling for cancer survivors

Hemphill says cancer survivors are sometimes surprised by the emotions they feel when they finish treatment and no longer have the reassurance from seeing medical professionals regularly.

"Counseling can help you consolidate your treatment experience and strengthen the new person who has emerged," she says. "Most challenges in life are about transitions. Any time a transition from one period in life to another occurs, there will be stress. Counseling can help you process your experience, find value in what you’ve learned and appreciate your strength."

Counseling for families

Family counseling helps people in different stages and social roles have a chance to adjust to a loved one's cancer diagnosis.

"At different ages, people have a different understanding of what cancer means," explains Hemphill. "The fear a 6-year-old has when her mother has cancer is different from the fear a 19-year-old might have."

Learn more about support for cancer survivors and caregivers.

Counseling can also help families explore changing dynamics.

"The patient can't take care of everything, such as his or her job, family and medical appointments. It's hard to attend to all caregiving you might want to give your children or spouse. You have to take care of yourself while going through cancer treatment. This may shift the dynamics of the family."

Counseling for caregivers

Caregiver counseling and/or support groups help caregivers normalize their experiences.

"If caregivers are not well supported, the patient can suffer as well," says Hemphill. "Caregivers get so tired. It's exhausting and can really be a disempowering role. Patients can take action through treatment, but how does a caregiver measure action and success? It's different from how patients measure action and success."

There when you need it

Hemphill says most of her clients see her on a short-term basis and may check in every few months for additional sessions as needed.

"Counseling is available to help you find peace and strength of mind," she says. "You may not feel well of mind at the beginning, but hopefully you'll feel better than when you came in. Counseling is not a cure, but it can help strengthen your spirit to manage a stressful situation."

See additional support resources.


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