Counselling for Cancer

What is Counselling?

Counselling is when a counsellor will see a client in a confidential setting to explore a distress or a difficulty that the client is experiencing. Counsellors do not give advice or judge the client; their role is to listen and a counsellor acts rather like a sounding board for the client.

A counsellor will encourage clients to talk very freely about their feelings so that difficult, suppressed feelings can be aired safely in this environment. The counsellor is always respectful and accepting of the client and over time a deep trust can develop. As the confidence and trust of the client grows so too does the depth of exploration of feelings with their counsellor.

The counsellor may facilitate progress within clients by helping them to identify and examine situations or behaviours which are difficult and finding alternative coping mechanisms. (1)

Counselling and Childhood Cancer

Depending on the age of a child their understanding of their cancer diagnosis and their way to deal with the road ahead will differ. Different personalities will react and cope differently and children will also be affected by how their parents and siblings behave.

As a child with cancer requires all their available energy to fight the disease, it is crucial that they do not have to focus extra energy on bottling up feelings which they cannot share easily with family or friends sometimes. This is where counselling can be of great help.

The parents and siblings can also benefit greatly from counselling. Each family member will have their own personal reaction to the situation and the stress put on the family unit can be difficult. Parents can be assisted by an experienced counsellor to understand their own feelings better as well as understanding the journey of their sick child. Siblings can express their worries, frustrations and other feelings in a safe environment with a counsellor at a time when their parents may be less able to help them.

Both for a child and family members counselling can be beneficial at the outset to help firstly with acceptance and understanding of the child’s cancer and then can be continued throughout the treatment period.

To name just a few potential feelings – (2)

As the child is adjusting to their cancer they can experience:

  • Loneliness
  • Low self-esteem
  • Withdrawal
  • Loss of control
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Spiritual alienation

As the parents and siblings adjust they can experience:

  • Acute depression
  • Loss of control
  • Sleeplessness
  • Irritability
  • Work difficulties
  • Marital tensions
  • Fatigue
  • A sense of helplessness and isolation
  • Overeating
  • Poor school performance

Counselling can (3):

  • Decrease feelings of isolation for both the patient and family
  • Provide an opportunity to ventilate feelings to someone who is accepting and respectful
  • Improve individual coping abilities
  • Improve socialization skills
  • Improve interpersonal relationships with medical personnel and family members
  • Provide a sense of control and mastery that may otherwise be lost while involved in ongoing treatment

A counsellor can help the child and family express feelings of anxiety over the long-term effects of the illness and treatment. They can listen impartially to a whole spectrum of feelings that the child and family members desperately need to express at this time and through a non-judgemental attitude and facilitation help them understand and deal with their emotions making the journey a little easier. (4)

With a counsellor the child or any family member has someone they can talk openly to and cry their hearts out to who understands and supports them through this process. (5)


1. A study was published in the British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, in January 1990 where a case is made for skilled, independent counselling service to be made available to children with cancer, and their families.

The study presents evidence from a selected review of recent literature, and the stated needs and views of a small group of parents obtained by counsellors' in-depth interviews.

The evidence shows the stresses imposed as well as the inability of medical teams to fully address these needs concurrently with treating the illness.
Skilled, long-term counselling for patient and family is seen to be an important aspect of a comprehensive childhood cancer service. (6)

2. “Psychosocial support of the pediatric cancer patient: Lessons learned over the past 50 years” published in 2008 explores the benefits of counselling amongst other supportive programs. (7)

What Happens in a Counselling Session?

A safe space is created in a counselling session to explore your feelings and thoughts. The counsellor will encourage you to express any bottled up feelings which will be met with understanding and acceptance. A counsellor is trained to listen in a different way so they put themselves aside so they can feel and understand your experience.

You will be listened to, facilitated and this will help you relax in a way that you can make sense of your feelings.

A Brief History of Counselling

Counselling has been practised throughout many cultures in the past but has only become formally recognised as a profession for just over a century.

Research into counselling began with the work of Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth century who went on to become one of the most revered and influential names in the fields of Counselling and Psychology. Others such as Carl Jung and Otto Rank went on to develop their own techniques and gain recognition in their individual fields.

During the 20th century developments continued at a steady pace with different schools of thought and theories emerging. In the 1950’s Carl Rogers gained recognition for his work on the person centred approach and publishing Client Centred Therapy. His work forms the basis for many approaches to counselling today. (8)