What is a Cancer Psychologist?

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A cancer psychologist applies the knowledge and tools of clinical psychology to help people who are dealing with cancer. The kind of help that cancer patients need varies greatly from person to person, and family to family. To provide this help, a cancer psychologist must be familiar with the reality that patients are living with; he or she would know about the different types of cancer and the medical treatments for them, about the side effects of these treatments, and about the many challenges and dilemmas that people with cancer face all the time.

Most cancer patients do not have a mental illness or psychological disorder. Their problem is a medical one – that is, their cancer. But cancer can create psychological problems, such as a haunting anxiety or a deep depression. It can also create problems within a marriage or family. The emotional needs of a spouse or family member, for example, can be at odds with what the patient needs. A cancer psychologist can also help with problems like that.

 Most cancer psychologists will tell you that, more than anything else, people with cancer just need someone to talk with about what they are going through and how they are coping with it. They need someone who is not a relative or friend, and therefore does not want or expect the patient to react in a certain way. And they need someone who knows about cancer and what it’s like to be dealing with it, and thus can listen with understanding and support. Because a cancer psychologist knows lots of people with cancer, and has therefore learned from patients about positive ways of coping or resolving certain dilemmas that come up, he or she can draw on this experience in helping others.

Cancer psychologists, like most therapists, seek to create a safe environment for patients to express their true emotions. Too often, people with cancer hold back or monitor their emotional expression in order to protect their loved ones. Or they hold back because they pride themselves in “being strong” or think others will only admire and support them if act that way. They might hold back with a therapist as well, but most therapists are wise to these issues and can reassure a patient that they don’t need to be protected and don’t expect the person to cope in a certain way. The goal is to help patients feel that it’s okay to be themselves and to express whatever reactions they may be experiencing.

It is good for people with cancer to express their emotions, but it is also good to explore what is behind or underneath them. Sometimes a person’s past experience can cause an emotional reaction that is not really warranted in the current situation. When the person sees that connection, he or she can more readily respond in ways that fit the situation they are now in. But this requires a person to step back and look at the role that past experience is having on his or her emotions and behavioral responses. Cancer psychologists (again, like most therapists) are able to help people with this kind of exploration.

Sadly and too often, people with cancer must face their eventual death as their illness progresses. For many, this is anguishing process. A cancer psychologist has experience in helping people with the emotional, existential, and spiritual issues involved in facing death and coming to terms with it, if that is what the person is struggling to do.

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