The psychological impact of receiving a cancer diagnosis, going through cancer treatment and navigating life after cancer is huge for most people. There can be many physical and emotional challenges and uncertainties to grapple with. Kate Matarese, one of our psychologists at Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology, has a passion for supporting people living with cancer. She helps patients and their families and loved ones to navigate the challenges and uncertainty that can come with a cancer diagnosis. We asked Kate some questions to get a better sense of how a psychologist can help someone living with cancer.

What is psycho oncology?

Psycho oncology is a term used to describe the various psychological aspects of the cancer experience. Although cancer is a physical illness, it often has an enormous emotional, behavioural and psychological effect on the patient and their loved ones. In cancer psychology sessions, I work with patients on a range of different issues – some clients may be recently diagnosed, others may be struggling years after completing treatment.

How might a psychologist help someone with cancer?

I work with my clients on everything from processing the emotions regarding the diagnosis, such as fear and anger, to how to manage the physical and emotional impact of cancer treatment, relationship and intimacy issues, and adjusting to life after treatment – which can often take some time. Cancer is life changing for everyone that goes through it, and it requires coping tools and strategies to manage and adjust.

When would it be useful for a cancer patient to consider seeing a psychologist?

If you feel like you are struggling emotionally with any aspect of your cancer experience, it can be helpful to talk to someone. A psychologist that has some experience in psycho oncology will have a specific understanding of the psychological issues associated with cancer which is most helpful.

What are some of the common emotional and psychological challenges that cancer patients face?

Some common psychological issues that cancer patients face are body image issues, managing pain and changes to energy levels, feeling like no one really understands what they are going through, adjustment to life after cancer, anxiety related to follow ups and scans, relationship issues, existential issues, acceptance and adjustment.

How can a psychologist help with pain management in cancer?

A psychologist with experience and understanding of cancer can certainly help with the psychological components of pain management. This includes education about what is realistic, as well as cognitive and behavioural strategies to reduce pain and the impact it is having on someone’s day-to-day life.

How might cancer impact a person’s mental health?

There is often a strong component of fear and anxiety related to a cancer diagnosis. Depending on your life stage and age this can become overwhelming and difficult to manage. Although feelings of sadness, anger and worry are normal to have if you are dealing with cancer, it is not normal or expected that you will have depression. Therefore if you are feeling hopeless or helpless or consistently flat, it is strongly advised that you seek support from a psychologist or other allied health professional.

Can a psychologist also provide support to the family and friends of a cancer patient too?

Cancer does not just impact the patient, and therefore if you are close to someone who has or has recently had cancer and you are struggling, it may be helpful to talk to a psychologist. You may be feeling guilt, frustration, worry and fear – this is all normal but can be very challenging to cope with.

What are some of the coping strategies that a psychologist might work on with a cancer patient?

I work with a lot of my clients on practising acceptance, mindfulness and self compassion when going through the cancer experience. This can be extremely helpful when dealing with uncertainty, uncomfortable treatments, pain and fatigue, and adjusting to life after cancer as well. We also work on more specific coping strategies such as for anxiety regarding scans and medical appointments and body image issues.

What are some ways that family and friends can provide emotional support to a loved one living with cancer?

This is very individual as some people will want to talk openly about their cancer experience, and others will prefer to keep things private. Some people may prefer practical support such as help getting to and from appointments or cooked meals, and others may want emotional support. One thing that many of my clients do express is that it is challenging for them once treatment is over and others seem to expect things to “go back to normal” – we know that there is no going back to normal after cancer and the “new normal” can take months or years to work out. So friends and family that have some understanding and empathy about this could be very helpful.

What is it that you enjoy most about working with cancer patients?

I love my psycho oncology work as it brings me into contact with clients from all walks of life who find themselves dealing with an incredibly difficult physical and emotional experience. It feels like a great privilege to help these clients at their time of need; to provide some understanding, support, education and strategies to assist them to move through this time as best they can.

Do you have any resources you recommend for cancer patients who might be looking for emotional support?

The Cancer Council has some great support resources online, and I also encourage clients to consider support groups as it can be really helpful to talk to other people who have gone though something similar to you.

If you would like some support navigating cancer, reach out to our Support Team about booking an appointment with Kate. You can either call on (03) 9376 1958 or email