Thoughts on psychotherapy for cancer survivors

‘Thousands surviving decades after cancer ‘ is an optimistic headline and anyone of us who have a family member or friend who has received a cancer diagnosis might find some reassurance in it.

On the radio 4 programme Today, (1August 16 ) Greig Trout spoke of the psychological scars and the impact of having a disease that inevitably stresses the body, brain, mind and relationships. His blog, ‘101 Things to Do when you Survive’ is an initiative designed to spread hope and inspire others to continue to live fulfilling lives, despite whatever adversities they face, or have faced in the past.

Greig encourages all survivors to live a full and varied life, whether they have suffered from cancer once, or as in his case, several times, as he had the disease during his childhood and again as an adult. His story is a helpful account of how recovery and adaptation is a personal and varied shift into making sense of what has happened and how things in life become re-prioritised.

Greig brings awareness to how the shock of an unwanted and unexpected change in life can be like a ripple in a pond that has far reaching implications. Some achieve fantastic feats when faced with the disease, raising vast sums of money in appreciation of the medical care and contribution of those involved in cancer charities and organisations, but obviously there can be many negative outcomes of such a diagnosis, too.

From my experience of working as a therapist, I know that survivors of cancer can sometimes hold within their body and mind a pervasive fear of being suddenly ambushed by bad news. Occasionally a client can develop some unhealthy ways of behaving because they feel death is around the corner. This may may include alcohol misuse or as in one client of mine, promiscuous sexual activity which never satisfied his need for feeling loved and safe in the present.

One client came for holistic massage therapy, post surgery. After she had physically recovered from a double mastectomy we considered together any potential contraindications because of the lymph system, ducts, nodes and sites of potential swelling. She then talked of her guilt about living.

So much of the time from diagnosis, treatment and rehab can feel like it is defined by cancer. Friends can be lost and new friends may be made- often these are people who have shared experiences. My client was befriended by someone who was also in treatment and they did many things together because they understood what each was going through, but unfortunately that woman did not survive.

This is such a complex topic, not least because there are something like 200 types of cancer. My client was suffering with ‘survivor guilt’. Whenever she experienced pleasure from being alive, she immediately felt the loss of the woman who had been a great support to her. This then made her question her own right to existence and it brought up feelings of worthlessness and shame from childhood. Psychotherapy and body work enabled this woman to find a different way of interpreting her recovery.

Another one of my clients became so distraught after his ‘all clear’ from cancer that he became compulsive about working more and more hours to stockpile some savings in case he was ever incapacitated again. He was so desperate to protect his family that he disengaged from anything he thought was superfluous to earning money. In a distorted way, this man was trying to be in control of fighting the cancer returning.

Ultimately, no matter how much literature there is to educate and inform about what to expect when you have cancer, almost everyone will benefit from professional and compassionate attention. Just because everyone else appears to be celebrating, if you are still quietly and privately feeling troubled or disturbed by remembering what you have been through, or if you feel like you can’t risk living life and feeling excitement and pleasure, please do make contact with us at Body Mind Therapy.

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