Helping Children When a Family Member has Cancer: Understanding Psychosocial Support Services

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What qualities should I look for in a cancer counselor?

Your comfort level and the counselor’s experience are probably the 2 most important factors to think about when choosing a counselor. People who work in cancer treatment centers usually have more knowledge and experience with the usual emotional responses to cancer than counselors who work with people without cancer. A counselor’s experience with cancer, whether personal or professional, helps you see that your reactions are normal and can help you make sense of your situation.

For example, an experienced cancer counselor knows that a patient might feel depressed after treatment is finished. This might happen for some people because being in treatment and going to the cancer center means “I am fighting the cancer.” Once treatment is over, patients are sometimes surprised to find they are more worried than they were when they were getting treatment. A cancer counselor knows this is a normal response for many people. The counselor can help the person with cancer see how this makes sense and not feel so strange and alone at times. And, an experienced cancer counselor will also be able to tell the difference between the normal sadness and loss you feel and a major depression that may require treatment. (For more on this, see Anxiety, Fear, and Depression. You can find it on our Web site or call us and ask for a copy.)

It’s also important to consider training or credentials when choosing a counselor. Your counselor should have at least a bachelor’s degree in one of the counseling fields. They may also have a master’s or doctoral degree. Counselors come from the fields of social work, psychology, psychiatry, psychiatric nursing, or pastoral counseling. While credentials describe a person’s formal education in their chosen field, experience with cancer care is also important. And personality is important, too. Ideally, your cancer counselor will be warm and caring. Often the best sources for counselors come from someone who has had a good experience with the professional: word-of-mouth references. Just as you want to be sure the people on your medical team are competent, you should also apply the same standards to your psychosocial care. You should not feel shy about checking out your potential mental health counselor. Professionals who are secure in their abilities should be happy to give you information about their credentials and experience.

Sometimes people feel that unless a counselor has had cancer, they may not be able to help. A personal experience can certainly add to the counselor’s expertise, but living through the cancer experience with many cancer patients and family members is valuable as well. Even if a counselor has never had cancer, we have all experienced life crises and losses. A personal experience with cancer is only one factor to think about in choosing a counselor.

Think about how you feel with your counselor. Do you feel safe sharing your concerns with this person? Do you trust their ability to help you? Do you feel that the counselor listens to you and understands who you are as a person? Do you think your family could relate easily to this person? Your reactions may be hard to understand or describe, but trust your instincts. If somehow you just don’t feel comfortable after a few sessions, it would be wise to try someone else. You will feel more comfortable when you have found a good match.

Last Medical Review: 08/09/2012
Last Revised: 08/09/2012