Being Well

How to Find a Therapist to Help You Through Your Cancer Experience

Sometimes you may need extra support or someone to lean on while you go through cancer treatment. A therapist can help you through the emotional and mental health aspects of your cancer experience.

Living with cancer is a roller coaster of emotions — with some you didn’t even know you could experience. With this swell of feelings, you may need extra support or someone to lean on. This can be a challenge when you don’t know how to find a therapist. Here’s what you need to know to find the right therapist for you and why this step is so vital.

How a Therapist Can Help

A therapist or cancer care counselor is an important part of your treatment team. While your medical team helps you navigate your diagnosis and treatment, a therapist can support you through the emotional aspects of your experience. A therapist is someone you can speak to confidentially (and confidently) about what you’re going through. They can help you process the ups and downs of living with or surviving cancer and develop healthy coping skills that support your treatment and overall well-being. They can also help you if you’re experiencing anxiety or depression.

Therapists can also help caregivers who need an outlet to process their emotions. They provide a safe space to express concerns and fears as well as connect them to resources and support groups. Read below for tips on how to find a therapist that provides the specific guidance you need.

1. Ask for Recommendations

Asking for word-of-mouth referrals from people you know is a good place to start. Talk to friends, family members and your medical team. Also check with your treatment center to see if they have cancer support counselors on staff.

Generally, a therapist has a bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree and is certified as a licensed counselor. These can be psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed clinical social workers, oncology social workers, psychiatric clinical nursing specialists, licensed counselors and licensed marriage and family therapists.

2. Look for a Cancer Care Specialist

Just like doctors, therapists and counselors can also focus on treating specific conditions like cancer and may be better suited to working with you. For example, oncology social workers have a master’s degree and have experience working with cancer patients and survivors as well as caregivers. They’ll have a better understanding of the effects of cancer and treatment on people and their loved ones, as well as the stress and emotions you might experience.

3. Get to Know Them

When you have a list of recommendations, give them a call. Speaking with a prospective therapist gives you an opportunity to get a feel for their personality and approach. You should feel comfortable talking to them about your concerns and experiences. Plus, this will give you a chance to ask questions about their experience, their approach and what to expect during your session.

4. Check Your Gut

How do you feel when you’re in the room with your therapist? Do you feel comfortable? Do your personalities mesh? Building a relationship with your therapist is one of the most important aspects of effective mental health care, according to the American Psychological Association. But not every therapist is a good match. If, after a few sessions (or even just one) you don’t feel like you’re clicking with your therapist, it’s more than OK to look for another one.

Whether you’re newly diagnosed, battling a second round of cancer or you’re a survivor, your mental health is an important part of your treatment. A mental health professional can help you process what you’re experiencing and give you the support you need through each phase of your cancer journey.

The UVA Cancer Center has a network of therapists and counselors to help you stay mentally healthy during (and after) treatment.

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Christine Yu