Individual or Family Counseling

A diagnosis of cancer will sometimes result in families really pulling together and offering support to one another. But sometimes family members may pull away because they don't want to upset you with their own worries. If this happens, everybody worries alone, which only makes the task of coping more difficult. Sometimes strained relationships have existed in a family for some time, then suddenly the family is faced with a crisis that may seem overwhelming. Sometimes people with cancer don't have family members they can depend on. In that situation, a cancer counselor can offer the support that family members may be unable to provide.

In some families, going to a counselor for any reason is looked upon as a sign of weakness. Some people have misconceptions about counseling. They may worry that openly discussing problems will make things worse or that they will be "exposed" or their personalities will be changed in some way. The idea that something about the way we think or behave will have to change is a scary thought for many of us. A counselor doesn't begin with the idea of magically changing people -- that's not possible. A counselor will help you identify the problems that are troubling you and will work with you to find ways to deal with them.

Sometimes people with cancer would like to try counseling but their families do not, or vice versa. In that case, whoever wants help should have it, although the ideal situation is to approach problems as a family. In a hospital setting, counseling is frequently short-term to help you figure out how to approach certain cancer-related problems. People new to the experience and their families might find counseling helpful at the time of diagnosis, when everything is so confusing. Learning new ways to solve problems during this time may be all you need to handle the entire cancer experience. Or you may find counseling useful at a later stage if you need more treatment or if new family problems occur. Sometimes it's difficult to "see the forest for the trees," and talking with someone outside of your family or circle of friends can help relieve your worries and allow you to make important decisions.

Counseling services for you or your family are often free where you are receiving treatment. The counselor will want to discuss your concerns in a general way with other health-care professionals who are treating you so that they understand you as a whole person, not just a medical problem. You must give your permission since counseling is always confidential.


  1. Offer help with communication problems. For example, you may not know what to tell people about your illness, or how to explain cancer to your children.

  2. Offer help with managing the normal feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, worry, or depression that can be associated with diagnosis and treatment.

  3. Offer help for you and family members in dealing with feelings and changes in family life to accommodate a chronic illness.

  4. Teach you specific techniques, such as behavioral counseling, which may relieve the physical (nausea) or emotional (anxiety) side effects of treatment.


  1. If you want to know if counseling services might help, talk to your doctor, nurse, or social worker. The first or second session with a counselor will help you decide if counseling will be beneficial for you or your family members.

  2. Hospitals are often staffed with counselors who provide free services. They may be social workers, oncology clinical nursing specialists, psychologists, or psychiatrists who have been trained for counseling and who know about emotional problems that people with cancer often experience. If your hospital does not have such people, community agencies are available, often for fees adjusted to your family's income.


  • Cancer counselors are trained to help people solve problems. Counselors should have at least a bachelor's degree in a subject like social work or psychology. Many will have a master's or doctoral degree as well. A counselor's experience in helping people solve cancer-related problems is as important as his or her education. Don't be afraid to ask about this.

  • If you decide to see a private counselor (outside the hospital system), you may want to interview more than one before making a choice. Be sure to select someone with whom you will feel comfortable discussing your problems.

  • Your local American Cancer Society may provide you with a list of qualified cancer counselors.

  • Not all people with cancer want or need counseling. Many people choose counseling only during a period of crisis, when life may seem overwhelming, when decisions need to be made about treatment, or during changes in family life. But keep in mind that your emotional response to cancer is as important as your physical reaction to treatment.