Counseling for cancer: why are we afraid to say we sometimes need it?

by Lauren Tedaldi, PhD

Black and white photo of a middle-aged person with black skin and short-cropped white hair. They stare powerfully and defiantly into the camera. Image for why is mental health therapy for cancer patients needed?

I felt like going to a therapist and saying, "there's something wrong with me," and I didn't really have an answer for what that was.


Photo by Freshh Connection on Unsplash

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This is my personal story of why mental health therapy for cancer patients saved me? Over the last three years I’ve been pregnant, the mother of a newborn or dealing with cancer. Sometimes I’ve been more than one of those things at the same time. People have tended not to tell me about their problems because of this. I guess that’s probably fair but, as I’m making my way back to Life-As-I-Knew-It, something is becoming more and more apparent. A lot of the people I care about are Not Okay, and I had no idea.

I now need more than my two hands to count the number of friends who have been diagnosed recently with clinical depression, are waiting to see a doctor because they suspect they have depression or are just seriously in need of some mental help. Some friends are struggling with painful break-ups, some are finding it hard to cope with the monumental changes of parenthood, some are swamped at work and drowning in self-doubt, overwhelmed with financial strains, crying at work in the loos and just generally having a shit time. And if you’re my ‘real life’ friend and you think I’m writing about you here and you’re upset that I’ve broken confidence, trust me, I promise, I’m not. There are lots of Yous in my life. I’m a You, too.

Why are we scared to say we need mental health therapy for cancer?

As I’ve reconnected with old friends, good friends, and intermittent friends a few have said to me in hushed tones “I think I had depression.” Actually, it’s usually, “I think I had a bit of depression.” A bit of depression. It seems like people feel the need to diminish their pain and brush it away. You don’t say you have a bit of a broken leg, do you? Or a bit of malaria? You’re ill. Something is stopping you function as normal, so you get help. You get a cast, or a tablet or a cream that stops it burning when you pee… Why are we afraid to say we need counseling? So here’s my confession: I’ve had mental health therapy for cancer.

To the best of my knowledge, I don’t have (and never have had depression) but I have felt so overwhelmed that I’ve cried on the bathroom floor while my daughter eats her breakfast in the next room. I have tried to say “I’m fine,” genuinely believing it, and wept instead. I have struggled to find the energy to reply to text messages from friends asking me how I am. At times, I have been that person crying quietly on the tube. I recently had to hang up on the phone to the bank because the instructions to reset my banking passwords were too overwhelming (sorry Gary, from First Direct. It’s not you, it’s really me).

“You don't say you have a bit of a broken leg, do you? So why say you have a bit of depression”

I am mostly fine until I am not

I am lucky to have been offered some free therapy from a local cancer charity. But it’s taken me over a year to do anything about it. I didn’t have time. Or so I said. Between doctors and oncologists and allergists and nurseries and radiotherapy and work, I just didn’t see how I could justify more hours devoted to myself that wasn’t feeding and clothing myself and my daughter, and spending time with my husband. Because I was mostly, totally fine. Absolutely fine. Until you find yourself crying at a TV movie about robots (and not Wall-E, the crap one with Ewan McGregor). I used to find that writing helped. But then people started reading and liking my writing online, and I had to stop for a while. I convinced myself I wasn’t very good and people would soon realize. I still feel like that most days.

Mental health therapy for cancer helped me

I’m not an expert in mental health. Not by far. I had a set of eight sessions over six or so months. But I did find the whole experience incredibly helpful. I found each session useful, but I also found just knowing that I had therapy to look forward to was comforting and helped me compartmentalize things. If I was upset by something or struggling to cope with a particular event, I could put it to one side, knowing that I’d be able to go over it with S, my counselor, in a week or two.

With all this positivity, there is a flipside. I always felt really guilty about going. Each week I would seriously consider not going. I felt like I should be able to sort my shit out on my own. That going to therapy was a slap in the face to the people who love me, and they wouldn’t understand why I needed to talk to a stranger. I felt like going to a counselor said, “there’s something wrong with me,” and I didn’t really have an answer for what that was. Or if there was. I just knew I needed to talk to someone.

I was ashamed to tell people I needed mental health therapy for cancer

I felt ashamed about therapy in ways that make me ashamed (what a circular argument that is) because I would never want anyone else to be ashamed to go to a therapist. I’m embarrassed (which is not the same as ashamed) and while I’ll tell people when I’m off to see my doctor, or surgeon, or oncologist, I would never tell someone I’d just got back from a mental health therapy session (although they might be able to tell from the state of my tear-streaked face behind my serene expression).


Read more: Don’t ask a coworker any of these 10 awkward questions about their cancer


Of course, I addressed some of these issues about therapy and appearance with my therapist. I’m hoping it wasn’t just her deep desire to keep paying her mortgage that allowed her to completely convince me it was okay to want to see her. Even if I didn’t need to. Because, I suppose, the idea is to see someone before you need to. Before you are curled up in a ball on a regular basis.

Not very British to go seek mental health therapy for cancer

It can be really hard to justify the cost of therapy to yourself (or so I’ve found, at least). The cost in money and the cost in time. The cost in sheer emotions and effort. And when you’re just about holding it together, you think “Do I really want to pull at that thread?”

It’s not very British to talk to a complete stranger about your problems, and it’s not very Italian to not loudly and dramatically broadcast your entire life and woes to the world. So maybe I’m stuck in the middle, and I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. Therapy  (counseling, whatever you call it) wasn’t just a place to cry (although I’ve shed more than a few tears), and it wasn’t just a place to get advice (although there can be some of that). I don’t really know what it was. But for me, it was essential. Don’t tell anyone, will you?

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Article by Lauren Tedaldi, PhD

Lauren Tedaldi writes about her life as a young(ish) mother, with cancer, a job, and increasingly unruly hair.



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