A cancer diagnosis is an extremely difficult one, and individual patients choose to deal with their emotions in very different ways. No matter what you are thinking and feeling, it is always important to talk to someone you can trust about what scares, angers and confuses you about your diagnosis, treatment, prognosis, etc. It is important that you have a strong support system of family and friends to turn to, as well as that you feel comfortable asking questions of and expressing concerns to your doctor. However, for some people these outlets are not enough, and many cancer patients seek someone else to share their feelings with.
Research has shown that psychotherapy may improve a cancer patient’s quality of life. It can help reduce anxiety and depression, as well specifically address the challenge of coping with cancer and the life changes associated with the diagnosis. Psychotherapists believe that therapy helps their patients, including those with cancer, to find the inner strength they need to cope, allowing them to more fully enjoy their lives.
There are many different types of therapy, including group therapy and one-on-one sessions. Therapy may be long-term or may be brief and address a specific problem. It may include discussing your feelings and issues, looking at emotional experiences as well as physical events that are occurring in your life, working on your coping mechanisms, and more.
Finding a good therapist is very difficult to do. Some people feel comfortable speaking to a therapist they have gone to before for other issues, while others would rather speak to someone with specific experience working with cancer patients. The first step is always to speak with your doctor. There may be someone in the hospital you can work with, as oncology units often departments that include therapists. If not, your doctor may be able to refer you to someone that other patients have used.
If you are looking for a cancer therapist on your own, there are many important things to consider that can help you find the right person. First, it is important to decide what type of a therapist you want, in terms of his or her education and medical qualifications.
A “psychotherapist” is a general term used to describe any person, regardless of training, who provides psychological therapy.
Psychiatrists have completed standard medical doctor training, which means they have attended medical school, have an MD, and are fully licensed to practice medicine and write prescriptions.
Psychologists have completed four years of graduate training in psychology, which means they have been granted a Ph.D. Although many people may initially feel that psychologists are less qualified and therefore prefer to go to a psychiatrist, this is not necessarily true. Not attending medical school means psychologists cannot write prescriptions, but it also means they spent their graduate school years focused entirely on psychological issues and were not required to spend time learning about areas of healthcare that do not pertain to their chosen profession. Many psychologists are just as, if not more, qualified then psychiatrists and are also often cheaper because of their inability to write prescriptions.
Social workers have a master’s degree in social work. The training of a social worker varies greatly. Some social work programs offer little or no clinical training while others provide in-depth courses on counseling and therapeutic intervention. Social workers often practice in social work agencies, but recently many have begun to receive supplementary degrees which make them more qualified to provide psychological evaluation. Working with a social worker can be a great option, but make sure to research training and education of the individual if that is important to you.
Lay therapists are non-degreed therapists who have an interest in and a natural talent for psychotherapy. They may have some training in the field of psychology or special training in a particular type of therapy, but they do not have professional accreditation. With the exception of severe disorders and people requiring medication, non-degreed therapists can often be as helpful as degreed therapists. There are just as many incompetent therapists with degrees as there are those without them, so while choosing a therapist may be difficult, it really comes down to your comfort level.
Psychiatrists are the most expensive, followed by psychologists and then social workers, lay therapists and other non-degreed therapists. Insurance can cover anywhere from 0 to 80% of your therapy bills, so be sure to check with your insurance company about coverage. If you are in an HMO, therapy may be less expensive. Your challenge may be to convince the HMO that you need an outside therapist because your chances of finding a competent therapist trained in dealing with cancer patients internally are slim.
Weekly therapy can be extremely expensive, with psychiatrists charging upwards of $100 for a one hour session. However, it is important to consider how much pain and suffering can be alleviated and the life satisfaction you may obtain by working with a therapist. If money is tight, consider working with a non-degreed therapist. Therapy can be cost-effective if you find the right therapist.
Just like in relationships, it often takes multiple tries before you find the right person for you. If you try someone and they don’t work for you, don’t be afraid to move on to someone else. Have an initial consultation with more than one therapist. When you meet the therapist for the first time, trust your instincts. You don’t necessarily need a good reason for why you do or don’t like one therapist or another. What’s important is that your trust this person, that you feel comfortable talking to them, and that they are relatable. Make sure you feel as though the therapist is really listening to what you are saying and offering you personalized, as opposed to generic, advice. Do not be afraid or embarrassed to ask questions, remember that you are the client and you are choosing someone with whom you will have an intimate personal relationship. Generally, especially when dealing with cancer therapy, it is best to choose an older or more experienced therapist. However, don’t let this deter you from working with someone younger with whom you really make a connection.
There are many books and videos that can be helpful supplements to your therapy. Cancer as a Turning Point: A Handbook for People with Cancer, Their Families, and Health Professionals by Dr. Lawrence LeShan is a must read for people with cancer. It includes the details of his unique “LeShan” approach to cancer therapy, one which you may be able to discuss using with your doctor if it appeals to you, as well as Dr. LeShan’s tips for finding a cancer therapist. Also, Human Operator’s Manual: How Feelings Work, A Psychological Primer by Dr. Stuart Zelman, Ph.D., and David Bognar is an extremely helpful manual on understanding how feelings work and how people function internally. Although not specifically cancer-related, the book is a great way to begin to understand your own feelings and often creates great topics and questions to discuss with your therapist. There is also a three hour documentary series, the third hour of which CANCER: Increasing Your Odds For Survival is devoted to helping people understand and apply mind/body medicine and psychological techniques in the treatment of cancer.