Virtual Counselling to Help Childhood Cancer Survivors

A conversation about the mental health of childhood cancer survivors with registered psychotherapist Carly Fleming.

Q: How are the mental health needs of childhood cancer survivors unique?

A: Individuals who experience cancer as a child often carry the pieces of this experience with them into adulthood. This could be in the form of lasting physical pain/impairments or emotional trauma resulting from their treatment. They may also experience worry and anxiety about their future health, grief from losing friends to childhood cancer and guilt that they survived, or changes in family dynamics that came about as a result of their cancer. This is all a heavy load to carry. Often in childhood or the teen years, they aren’t emotionally ready to process the enormity of these things. But once adulthood arrives, the true weight and gravity of childhood experiences can come to light, resulting in mental health challenges. Survivors often feel that there is something wrong with them if they are still struggling years after being “cured.” Each person will experience things differently, but it makes sense that childhood cancer survivors may need to work through the emotional issues they are facing in order to live life to the fullest.

Q: What do you think healthcare teams can do to help their patients’ mental health?

A: The answer to this is simple. Ask good questions. Of course, asking good questions isn’t as easy as it may seem. When we ask good questions, we are open to any answers, not just the ones we predict or want to hear. When we ask good questions, we try to stay away from yes/no responses and leave room for complex, nuanced answers. When we ask good questions, we recognize that there may be uncomfortable silences, or the answers may make us feel uncomfortable, and that’s ok. When we ask good questions, we lead with curiosity.

Q: What has changed about counselling during COVID-19?

A: Before COVID-19, we had the technology to offer virtual counselling but rarely used it. In the past year, the vast majority of mental health services have gone virtual, forcing clinicians and clients to adjust quickly. I think the most significant change has been in our attitudes towards virtual counselling. We used to look at it as a second option, a sub-optimal choice when in-person meetings weren’t possible. This means some clinicians and clients weren’t fully bought into the idea of counselling this way. Now that we have been forced to adapt quickly to this modality, we have seen the good things about in-person counselling happen virtually. Plus, we are able to connect with people who live far away or have difficulty travelling to in-person settings. From the standpoint of counselling, the pandemic has created incredible opportunities to connect in ways that make it far less burdensome for our clients.

Q: Do you prefer virtual counselling? What are the challenges when treating a childhood cancer survivor virtually instead of in person?

A: It can take a little longer to establish a new relationship between counsellor and client online. Without the in-person connection, we sometimes have to work harder and be more patient before the wonderful feeling of connection arrives. This can be problematic when the client feels apprehensive about meeting with a counsellor. Arranging a few shorter meetings to get through the initial “meet and greet” or intake questions can help. Making sure we take time to make a connection in non-clinical terms is also really important. Just some simple chatting about their life and sharing of some common ground can make a huge difference. Another challenge is ensuring the client’s full attention to the online meeting. When we used to meet in person, clients would come into our office and have very few other demands/distractions. Now that clients connect with us from their homes/offices/cars, there are many other demands on their attention. Vulnerability is compromised when they aren’t in a private, quiet space.

Q: What do you mean by vulnerability?

A: To truly explore what is meaningful to an individual, we need to get them to take down their defences. Many survivors put on a brave face, but that is not where the healing and transformation occur. Vulnerability is essential to good mental health care.

Q: At POGO AfterCare Education Day, what do you hope to convey in your session?

A: I hope to convey optimism about how the move to virtual counselling during the pandemic is an opportunity to create more accessible mental health care for childhood cancer survivors. I want to share some of the experiences and insights that I have gathered after the past year of providing virtual psychotherapy. Lastly, I plan to highlight some specific safety measures to ensure we are ready to help our clients should we identify in a virtual appointment that their safety may be at risk.

I am looking forward to learning from the other presenters about their experience in providing care to childhood cancer survivors over this challenging year.

Carly Fleming is a Registered Psychotherapist and founder of everwell Integrated Health Professionals, a virtual counselling group in Hamilton, Ontario, offering a range of services to guide meaning and healing. She has worked as a counsellor in private practice and various healthcare settings for over 15 years, specializing in grief and loss, parenting, coping with illness, and life transitions.

You can hear from Carly first-hand at the 2021 POGO AfterCare Education Day, where she will be presenting with Pediatric Psychologist, Sara Ahola-Kohut about Optimizing Online Mental Health Counselling for Childhood Cancer Survivors. 

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