Psycho-oncology: emo­tional support with cancer

Two women are sitting in a meeting room. The cancer patient receives emotional support.

A patient’s mental state plays an important role in the treatment of cancer. Psycho-oncology addresses this subject and provides patients and their family members with proven methods of assistance.

Cancer diagnosis and its psychological effects

For a long time, cancer is just a word that feels distant and abstract. Only once you or someone in your family is affected does it suddenly take on a whole new and immediate meaning. It throws a different light on your own life and raises existential questions. By focussing on the patient’s mental state, psycho-oncology or psychological oncology is therefore very important for cancer patients and their family members.

Psychological support for cancer

Angelika von Aufsess worked for a decade as a psycho-oncologist in a rehabilitation clinic in Germany. She knows: “Following a cancer diagnosis, action often centres around the medical treatment. During this phase, many patients lack the energy to deal with the stress they’re under. They suppress these feelings, and efforts to process what has happened are ‘parked’. But sooner or later, strong emotions arise and want to make themselves heard.” In rehab, she experienced that, for many people, a good time for addressing these emotions was after physical therapy was completed.

How psycho-oncology can help

As part of cancer treatment, psychological counselling can help people deal with their fears and other difficult feelings. Specialists support cancer patients and their relatives, listen to them and work with them to find solutions to the problems they’re facing. This can take the form of individual or group counselling therapy. As with other psychological services, however, the spectrum is broader: Also on offer are therapeutic writing, art therapy, hypnosis, self-help groups and much more.

Around a third of people with cancer have – in some phases, at least – a mental disorder such as an anxiety disorder or a depressive episode.
Angelika von Aufsess, psycho-oncologist

What is the aim of psycho-oncology?

Sometimes it's about managing your own strength levels and saying no, but top of the list is to rediscover the joy of life. Whatever the individual’s personal focus is, the aim of psycho-oncology is always to help people with cancer stabilise their psychological condition. The specialists start by looking at the resources that patients or their relatives already possess and can activate directly. However, it may also mean that psychotherapy is needed.

Psychological support for cancer patients and relatives

Angelika von Aufsess cites figures from German studies that can presumably be adapted to Switzerland: “Around a third of people with cancer have – in some phases, at least – a mental disorder such as an anxiety disorder or a depressive episode.” This needs to be treated. Angelika von Aufsess also stresses that psycho-oncological services are designed not only for patients but for their family members too.

But Angelika von Aufsess has also made positive observations: “In fact, a cancer diagnosis is sometimes the beginning of a transformation process. Some people mature and grow as a result.” In concrete terms, this can often be the first time that they address their feelings and needs, and they suddenly find themselves setting clear priorities for their own well-being and health.

Psycho-oncological services

In larger specialised clinics, psycho-oncology is already an integrated service, providing support to patients in need of it in the acute phase of their cancer diagnosis and treatment. Patients requiring psychological support who have already completed this part of their treatment are advised to seek services in their local area. The Swiss Society of Psycho-Oncology has a list of reputable psychologists.

Tips for more quality of life

Psycho-oncologist Angelika von Aufsess has 2 basic tips for people needing help to try out for themselves.

  1. Accept help. As difficult as this may be for most people, it’s important for the healing process. Angelika von Aufsess recommends thinking carefully about who could provide help with which tasks and who may have already offered help. This could mean, for example, asking your neighbour to do the shopping and a former work colleague to call you on a regular basis.
  2. What does me good? The aim here is to find out what your body and mind need. It’s worth trying different things out! Yoga helps some people, for others this means jogging or spending time alone in a café with a book. Even if there are all kinds of things you want to do, it’s a good idea to only implement a few new activities at a time. This is the best way to create lasting habits.

What can relatives do?

Relatives play a leading role when it comes to cancer, as they’re the ones who form the patient's network. According to our expert, a good environment is one of the key factors in managing cancer from a psychological perspective.

Tips for family members

  • Make concrete offers of help: “I'm going shopping tomorrow, can I get you anything?” or “Do you fancy a walk next week?” are easier to accept than “Just get in touch if you need anything!”
  • Call a spade a spade: When difficult topics are addressed openly, good conversations can emerge from them. Active avoidance, on the other hand, often leaves a bitter aftertaste.
  • Keep at it: Many people offer support at the beginning, but then the offers become fewer and fewer. Those that are still there after a long time are the ones of real help!
  • Know your own resources: Family members often find it difficult to cope too. Admitting this is a strength. Revising or cancelling offers of help is always allowed.

Help for relatives of cancer patients

Relatives also need support – the draining effect of their efforts is all too often overlooked, so they shouldn’t hesitate to accept help either. After all, it’s the same as with parents of small children: Parents first need to be in a good position themselves before they can support their children.

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