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How counselling helped a cancer patient overcome a fear of chemotherapy and lead a more positive life

Press release posted 11 December 2023

A woman from Bolton, who battled with anxiety after a double cancer diagnosis, has praised the counsellor who helped her get through cancer treatment.

Gemma Coleman, age 34, was diagnosed with separate ovarian and womb cancers within 3 months last year and referred to The Christie NHS Foundation Trust.

But Gemma was so anxious she needed to take diazepam before her first chemotherapy appointment. The Christie’s psycho-oncology team offered counselling, which helped overcome her fears during further chemotherapy appointments.

Gemma, who is married to Jack, was struggling to come to terms with having cancer and finding it hard to trust medical professionals, who missed opportunities to diagnose her cancers sooner. She was also coming to terms with not being able to have children.

The executive complaint specialist at the Co-op worked with a counsellor in the psycho-oncology team at The Christie for around 6 months. Gemma has decided to share her counselling experience to encourage other cancer patients to seek support if they are struggling with anxiety or psychological issues.

Trying to escape my cancer diagnosis

“The double diagnosis, within 3 months, left me devastated and in shock and fear,” said Gemma. “But the staff at The Christie have been utterly amazing.”

“I had several healthy and less healthy strategies to escape my new reality. For example, I have always enjoyed prayer, travel and exercise as a means of escapism, but I also enjoyed shopping and partying.

“There is nothing wrong with nights out or retail therapy - but after my cancer diagnosis, these became my coping methods. I became quite reckless and ended up in a lot of credit card debt.

“When I realised these distractions were not stopping me from being afraid, I became quite depressed. I only got peace of mind when I took sedatives or sleeping pills. And I was so nervous and worked up I needed to be sedated for chemotherapy.”

Being offered counselling

“I was really grateful when I was offered counselling at The Christie. At first, I felt uncomfortable opening up as the therapy chair was almost like a ‘chemo chair’ for emotions and fears I didn’t want to face.

“However, the counsellor put me at ease, and I soon talked non-stop.

“Initially, I talked about my shock, anxiety, and feelings about having cancer at the age of 33. This helped me to process my fears and come to terms with my diagnosis and infertility.

“After several sessions, I noticed that I needed fewer sleeping tablets and was beginning to become more relaxed during chemotherapy.”

Breakthrough

“I became more self-aware of my thinking habits and coping cycles. This was a massive breakthrough for me as I could see that I was stuck in a cycle of thinking and coping that exacerbated my anxiety.

“Although I am still a work in progress, I am much better at recognising when I’m following destructive thought patterns or striving to control things beyond my control.

“I also learnt that it’s okay to have self-compassion and it’s not indulgent to be kind to myself. I was always a little hard on myself, but guilt and shame don’t help me grow.”

Preparing for the future

“After my chemotherapy had finished, the counsellor helped me prepare for a future without medical and psychological support from The Christie - a transition in itself.

“We documented all the personal resources I had learned in therapy and how to apply them in my life. We put a plan in place for healthy ways to help myself going forward.

“It felt vulnerable getting my life back on track once the support ended, but what I learned in counselling gave me hope that I could handle life better than before and be a cancer thriver and not just a survivor.”

Encouraging others to seek help

“I would encourage anybody struggling with their cancer diagnosis to seek counselling and support for their mental health, as a big part of the battle can be psychological.” 

The future

At her most recent check-up, Gemma was delighted to hear that she was cancer-free and her long-term prognosis was very positive. She is planning a 3-week trip to Las Vegas to help overcome the challenging year of treatment. Gemma has returned to work and plans to have a meaningful career, and one day, she hopes to adopt children.

3 top tips

Looking back on her counselling experience, these are Gemma’s top 3 tips.

  1. Self-compassion and self-care – anything from having a nice bath and chatting with a friend to shopping or indulging in moderation without feeling guilty.
  2. Staying healthy - Embracing a healthy diet and staying physically active has had a very positive psychological and physical effect on me.
  3. Try to reframe uncertainty psychologically – instead of fearing the worst, I’ve reframed how I think. Cancer has helped me see the need to live life to the full and not waste precious days worrying. I’m determined not to let the fear of cancer steal the joy out of the rest of my life.

Gemma’s cancer diagnosis and treatment

In 2020, Gemma noticed her periods were shorter than usual, and she had backache. “I went to my GP and was referred for a scan, which showed a polyp in my womb. I had a hysteroscopy in March 2021, which failed to remove it, and another in June 2022, which succeeded,” she said.

But Gemma was still having issues with her periods and, after further scans and tests, was diagnosed with womb cancer in June 2022.

She decided to freeze her eggs before starting treatment, and it was during this procedure that the radiologist noticed something suspicious on one ovary. After a CA-125 blood test, Gemma was told she also had ovarian cancer in September 2022.

2 major surgeries followed, at Bolton Hospital and then at The Christie, to remove Gemma’s womb, fallopian tubes, cervix and ovaries. This was followed up with chemotherapy at The Christie.

The psycho-oncology service at The Christie

A cancer diagnosis can be a difficult and stressful time for anyone. It is common for people with a cancer diagnosis to experience a range of emotions such as anxiety, uncertainty about the future, loss of control, anger, relationship problems, depression, changes in body image, distress, memory problems, and difficult memories of past experiences.

There are many cancer charities and local NHS talking therapy services that offer psychological support to those who need it. The Christie, for example, has clinical staff such as clinical nurse specialists, doctors, and allied health professionals who provide psychological and mental health support to patients.

For patients who require specialist mental health support, the psycho-oncology team at The Christie provides psychiatric and clinical psychology assessment and treatment, specialist counselling, and psychological therapy to adult patients undergoing cancer treatment. The psycho-oncology team also provides specialist interventions to patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, psycho-sexual issues, acute psychosis, delirium, neuropsychiatric presentations, pre-existing serious mental illness or learning disability.

While a psychological intervention cannot take away the adversity that comes with the consequences of a cancer diagnosis, its main aim is to identify and develop helpful resources and strategies for a better quality of life.

Last updated: December 2023