Anne Moyer Ph.D.

Beyond Treatment

I Have Cancer; Do I Need to See a Therapist, Too?

Psychotherapy tailored to cancer patients’ needs

Posted Jul 09, 2017

 “A diagnosis of cancer can threaten the entire system of meaning by which one’s life is organized”1 writes Scott Temple, author of a new, authoritative clinical guide to brief cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) for cancer patients. These words capture the deep and all-consuming way that cancer can rock some patients’ worlds, emphasizing the necessity of compassionate, tailored, and skilled intervention for those who seek therapy.

What if one is having trouble coping with the cancer experience, but feels wary of seeking therapy? It is common for people who suddenly find themselves struggling to adjust to all of cancer’s new demands to have never needed or attended therapy before, making it an unfamiliar experience. The strength-based focus of newer forms of CBT, Temple notes, means that people’s already well-developed resources can be drawn upon in a way that is non-stigmatizing and fosters feelings of mastery and dignity. It is natural to worry that, in addition to feeling out of control of one’s physical health, therapy could involve being scrutinized, objectified, and having one’s flaws exposed. This is not the modus operandi of new forms of cognitive behavior therapy tailored for cancer patients, whereby compassion is a central and powerful tool.

The hallmarks of these newer forms of CBT as Temple outlines them involve several features that can be powerful supports and antidotes to counterproductive psychological processes, such as debilitating worry and rumination. These include normalizing human suffering, which helps one have a different stance toward coping. Another important piece is a focus on acceptance. This is particularly appropriate for medical illnesses which have limits in the extent to which they can be changed, such as cancer. Accepting things as they are takes the focus away from self-defeating struggles and makes room for skillfully “playing the hand of cards that life deals us.” Similarly, mindfulness, or paying attention to what is occurring in the present moment with equanimity, compassion, and a lack of judgment, can cultivate wisdom regarding whether particular beliefs are or are not accurate, a lack of reactivity, and active engagement in effective problem-solving. Another feature is termed metacognitive awareness, such that one can better notice and observe mental events. This can lead to more choice in how to respond to emotional experiences, physical sensations, assumptions and beliefs. In addition, focusing on strengths, resilience, meaning, values, and well-being, rather than pathology, are considered important components in managing the difficulties posed by cancer.

A referral to a psychologist does not mean one is crazy, and many cancer patients may not elect to have any or more than a few sessions of therapy. But when cancer's emotional and physical pain makes one feel defective or alone, a place to find support, compassion, and build coping skills has the potential to go a long way. 


1 Temple, S. (2017). Brief cognitive behavior therapy for cancer patients: Re-visioning the CBT paradigm. New York, NY: Routledge.