Many people will be affected by cancer in their life. Cancer Research UK estimates that one in two people in the UK born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime.
And whether it’s you who's affected or a family member or a friend, it brings about painful emotions that are difficult to process.
Our member Jessica Mitchell, who provides counselling support at Paul’s Cancer Support Centre in London, has helped cancer patients, and those who love or care for them, through every stage of cancer.
Dealing with the shock of a diagnosis
According to Cancer Research UK, every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer. And how people react to the news varies from person to person.
“In general, people are stopped in their tracks,” she says. “All that they were doing goes on hold and they’re plunged into an almost alternative universe with a language and procedures they need and want to understand."
How a person is told really stays with them. Jessica says she's still surprised when she regularly hears stories that people are told when they’re alone, on the phone and without thoughtfulness. "The trauma stays with people," she says.
Carers and family are affected too. "Their world changes and they have to figure out how to be the loved one of someone with cancer."
"Many feelings come up such as wanting to protect the person, grieving themselves but hiding feelings as they think they’re not the one who is having the hard time. They feel they need to be strong.”
Coping with cancer treatment
People can experience many debilitating and distressing side effects during cancer treatment, such as fatigue, nausea, insomnia or hair loss.
Jessica works with people who are affected in the short and very long term by treatments including surgery. She says: "Some of the effects are better understood than others.
"Clients often talk about treatment that doesn’t feel holistic, so no one health professional looks at all that is going on. They often find great support from their peers."
Living with cancer as a long term condition
As well as the physical effects of living with cancer, people have to cope with the psychological and emotional effects. Carers have to live with the terrible uncertainty too.
“Cancer treatment can take a long time and there are huge ups and downs," says Jessica. “People need enormous resilience to see through months or sometimes years of treatment. In the secondary breast cancer groups I ran, some people had been living with cancer for decades.
“Every area of life can be affected. Relationships often breakdown. Can you even go on holiday, and how long can you leave treatment for? And if you can travel, can you get insurance?
“And there’s the exhaustion. One woman told me she never thought she’d live this long and was totally exhausted.
"People often bond with others who have similar diagnoses and then they see others die. Bereavement can be intense."
And for those whose cancer is incurable, reactions differ from person to person. “Some people want to live in hope and not talk about the negative while others want to talk about death,” says Jessica.
Life after cancer
Once treatment is finished, people experience a range of emotions.
“People with cancer can discover inner strength and resilience,” says Jessica. “They learn who and what is important to them and may re-think their lives.”
But they may also live in anxiety of cancer coming back. She adds: "People can develop a different relationship with their bodies - that it’s my body’s fault.
“Many say the hardest time is when they’re told they’re fine and come back in a few months, or when they get signed off active treatment and don’t need to see doctors again. This can be scary as people get used to being monitored.
“Cancer treatment is intensive so it occupies a lot of the mind and when it ends, feelings can come crashing in.”
How counselling can help
Counselling can help you cope better with the journey from the diagnosis, through treatment and afterwards.
It helps you deal with your emotional reaction to a cancer diagnosis, such as fear, anger or anxiety. And it enables you to explore personal issues, family and relationship issues, and difficult conversations such as making a will.
You can have open, honest and confidential conversations about issues that may be too personal or too difficult to talk to family and friends about.
Jessica says: “Sometimes people want to examine and sometimes they want holding. Counselling is a safe space for people to be understood and to talk about how they feel without judgment."
And therapy can help loved ones and carers too. Jessica adds: "Remember that cancer also affects you - don't hold back and fear admitting you need help. Carers often think this isn't about me, I don't need support - but often they do."
If you have any comments or would like to share your story, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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