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The Need for Family Therapy After Cancer

Mother's Day is Family DayAlthough cancer has become more treatable due to advances in medicine that lead to earlier detection and effective treatment options, it still carries a life-altering diagnosis. It is frightening, scary, and is accompanied by a range of emotions that will impact anyone’s life — both in the patient and their loved ones as well. A cancer diagnosis is given to an individual, but often because of the impact of cancer on loved ones, it becomes a family’s disease. Mental health professionals play an integral role to help those affected by cancer. The psychological impact is immense and coping is an important aspect of treatment. Many times it is a necessity for those involved, and sometimes it is the force that the pulls everyone through.

Counseling and Therapy for Cancer

It is not uncommon for a doctor to encourage their patients to seek psychological therapy following a cancer diagnosis. It is also not uncommon for families and couples to seek out a therapist for their own benefit as occasionally loved ones are more distressed than the patient. The process of counseling and therapy enables people to explore ways to cope, manage their emotional concerns, and discuss ways to address life changes that are a result of the cancer treatment process. Coming to terms with cancer is challenging and depending on the diagnosis, individual, family, and couples counseling may be needed to best understand the diagnosis and provide proper support.

Existing mental health issues can be their own formidable challenge, but tacking on a cancer diagnosis will worsen any situation. Mental health problems that make it harder to cope include:

There are practical problems that arise from the diagnosis of cancer, as well. From day-to-day needs to employment issues, all of these impact a family and loved ones who are facing this upward climb:

  • Help with daily activities
  • Food costs
  • Job concerns
  • Financial concerns
  • Finding help for family and caregivers
  • Illness-related concerns for finding treatment, getting treatment, and frequency of treatment

Not to undermine the psychosocial problems that can arise from a cancer diagnosis, but they will impact the overall treatment process and factor into the family dynamic, as well, such as:

  • Trouble adjusting to the illness
  • Family or social isolation
  • End-of-life concerns
  • Making decisions for future care
  • Adjusting to changes in care
  • Making treatment decisions
  • Grieving problems
  • Burnout
  • Family conflict
  • Confusion

Mental health professionals use a range of approaches to help individuals and families cope. That coping can range from the existing issues and those that arise with a new diagnosis of cancer. Whether it comes from a psychiatrist, family therapist, social worker, or member of the cancer care team, counseling and therapy for the related challenges are available and are what patients and/or families of loved ones may need to cope, after receiving news of their illness.

Cancer Is Not an Individual Diagnosis

Anger, sadness, stress, and grief are just a few of the emotions that can riddle the family members of those diagnosed with cancer and learning ways to manage these varied emotions can be extremely beneficial. Individual or family therapy sessions can address areas of conflict which arise at a difficult time. Partners, spouses, and children may also be able to learn how to support the member of the family who has cancer. The family — as a whole — is a system that has been impacted. Although a cancer patient may have an hour a week for personal therapy, they go home to their family every day. And it is the whole system that must be included in therapy and counseling for it to work. Cancer has wide-reaching, direct, and indirect impacts on many lives that are intertwined with one another. It can have a significant impact on mental health. Being aware of those mental and emotional health needs is critical to limiting the total impact that cancer can have on a family.

The Need for Family Therapy After Cancer

Darren DeYoung

Darren DeYoung is a guest writer for Allison Holt & Associates, a Minnesota-based psychiatry practice serving children, adolescents and adults. The views expressed in here are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Allison Holt & Associates.

APA Reference
DeYoung, D. (2018). The Need for Family Therapy After Cancer. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 5 Jun 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.