Anyone facing cancer — whether as a patient or the loved one of someone with the disease — could use psychological and emotional support. Seeing a therapist, especially one who specializes in cancer and its effects, can be of great value at all points in a person’s experience.
Some people may hesitate to go to therapy for a number of reasons. In her eight years of providing psychotherapy to people with cancer and other illnesses and their caregivers, Memorial Sloan Kettering postdoctoral fellow and licensed clinical psychologist Kailey Roberts has heard many of these concerns. Here, she comments on some common myths about therapy.
Myth 1: Asking for help shows weakness.
Deciding to embark on therapy is actually a brave step that shows you care about yourself and the people in your life. “Coming to therapy is taking some control over an uncontrollable situation,” Dr. Roberts says. “It’s one thing people can do to support themselves.” Even if you’re convinced therapy won’t help you, consider the fact that the effects of receiving support may ripple out to your loved ones. “The challenging emotions associated with cancer can build up and come out in ways like frustration and anger,” Dr. Roberts adds. “Having a space to talk about these challenges can be a way of helping others.” When you feel supported, this can have a positive effect on those around you.
Myth 2: A therapist’s job is to give advice.
“I always try to start my sessions by saying to patients that they are the experts on their own experience and what they hope to get out of therapy,” says Dr. Roberts. While there are definitely times for practical problem-solving during a session, going to therapy is more about having an impartial person to help you build upon the strengths you already have and help you navigate challenging situations. It is the difference between figuring out the solution to a difficult problem and having someone simply tell you the answer.
Myth 3: Your therapist will judge you.
Therapists are trained in how to be open-minded and compassionate with others, and how to keep their own biases from spilling over into a person’s appointment. A therapist can be a close confidante, but they play a more neutral role than a friend would. With that comes less judgment and critique.
Myth 4: Therapy is just talking, with no end in sight.
Conversations with a therapist can vary between exploratory discussions and more structured sessions. This often depends on your goals for therapy. “Talking to a therapist is different from talking to a friend,” Dr. Roberts says. Individual goals for therapy vary, so the length and frequency of visits may also vary. Generally, a therapist’s intention is to give you the tools to manage the challenges that life brings.
Myth 5: Therapy is all about your childhood.
People come to therapy for all sorts of reasons. While some of those may have their roots in how you grew up, your therapist is very much concerned with what’s going on today and helping you cope with current difficulties. “When childhood and history come in, it is often to inform us, so we arrive at a better understanding of how things came to be and how that is impacting how you experience relationships and situations in the present,” says Dr. Roberts. So although the past may play a role in therapy, it won’t necessarily be the star of the show. Often therapy is about making progress in the present and beyond.