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Finding the right psychologist

Community Manager
Community Manager
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By Tim Baker

If you’ve received a cancer diagnosis, and are experiencing significant distress, may I suggest you pop down to your local GP and obtain a mental health care plan to see a psychologist? 

If you’ve received a cancer diagnosis and aren’t experiencing significant distress, may I learn the secrets to your superpower? 

Blokes, ay? We like to think we’re pretty tough, but guess what? A cancer diagnosis is tougher. If you don’t find ways to process the stress and anxiety of dealing with cancer, it’ll squirt out sideways and impact the people closest to you. 

I realised early on that I needed to speak to someone about the toll living with cancer and its treatment was taking on me. But it took me a lot longer to find a psychologist I really connected with. We are blessed in this country to be able to obtain a mental health care plan under Medicare, which covers most of the cost of seeing a psychologist. Depending on what a particular psychologist charges, you may have to pay a small gap, but I’d argue strongly that it is well worth it. 

The opportunity to just … vent, to unload whatever is weighing on your mind, rather than leaning exclusively or too heavily on your partner, family or loved ones, is priceless. A good psychologist can offer tools to process trauma and manage stress and anxiety, and help you make sense of your unscheduled confrontation with mortality.  

But don’t be put off if it takes you a while to find the right one. I saw four different psychologists before eventually finding on who I felt “got” me. The first psych I saw was a lovely lady who was almost too empathetic. I always felt like she was about to burst into tears as I told my tail of woe. The second psych I saw felt like a police interrogator. She had a video camera trained on me behind the wide timber desk she sat on the other side of. Any time I expressed any kind of emotion, she demanded to know where in my body I was experiencing it, as if I’d just confessed to a crime.  

My third psych made it clear he didn’t really like counselling cancer patients and kept asking me what I thought he could do for me. I was kind of hoping he could tell me. He gave me a book by a guy who died of cancer six months after diagnosis and sent me on my way. I never went back. 

At this point, I was just about ready to give up on the whole profession, which by then appeared to me like a completely useless pseudo-science, that had no coherent evidence base for its work.  

Then I found my current psych and we just … clicked. She listened attentively to anything and everything I felt like talking about, calmly held space when I dropped my bundle. She took copious notes on her iPad as we talked and frequently referred to them in subsequent visits, in a way that showed she’d absorbed and understood my story and would offer helpful suggestions and insights to the challenges I faced. 

But perhaps the most useful tool she introduced me to was “tapping”, or Emotional Freedom Technique. If that is already sounding a bit “woo-woo” to you, it did to me too, at first. Tapping involves defining your most pressing emotional issue in a simple statement. For example, “I am anxious about my next test results,” or “I’m worried that my health and treatment is impacting my family,” and you finish the statement with a positive affirmation, “but I can accept myself just the way I am.”  

As you repeat this personal mantra, you tap a series of acupressure points on the body in sequence – above the eyebrow, he outer edge of the eye socket, under the eye, under the nose, the chin, the chest, under the arm, and the crown of the head. The tapping seems to help neurologically embed this idea – that I’m facing a significant challenge in my life, but I can accept this, and I am going to get through it. 

Tapping has been shown in clinical trials to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and has been used in a wide variety of settings to help patients process trauma and anxiety. Think of it as a mindfulness exercise that allows you to take some of the emotional charge or heaviness out of the issues you might be struggling with.  

At times, when I’ve felt too agitated to even meditate, a round or two of tapping has helped settle my anxious mind and allowed me to sit in stillness, and further ease my mental state.  

A 2019 study, Clinical EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Improves Multiple Physiological Markers of Health, worked with 203 participants across six EFT workshops, measuring numerous psychological and physiological markers. Researchers concluded: 

EFT simultaneously improves a broad range of health markers across multiple physiological systems. As hypothesized, participants experienced significant decreases in pain, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Physiological indicators of health such as RHR (resting heart rate), BP (blood pressure), and cortisol also significantly decreased, indicating improvement. Happiness levels increased as did immune system function. 

Given that a 2016 study, Distress and PTSD in patients with cancer: Cohort study casefound that 76% of cancer patients experienced significant distress and 55% displayed PTSD, the need for mental health support is acute.  

A 2019 study, Are we missing PSTD in our patients with cancer? answered its own question with a resounding, yes, with dire consequences for patient quality of life, clinical outcomes and mental well-being:  

Cancer-related PTSD is often missed by a patient’s clinical team, and can impact treatment outcomes, recovery, and quality of life post-treatment … Cancer patients living with PTSD often live in fear, avoid stressful reminders of their cancer diagnosis and treatment, and can experience a great deal of distress and isolation.  

With all this evidence of the emotional and psychological toll a cancer diagnosis can take, mental health care needs to be centred in any comprehensive approach to cancer care. Speaking to a psychologist regularly and having some tools like tapping and meditation in your toolkit, can offer great relief to cancer patients and their loved ones.   


You can read more about EFT, how to do it and its evidence base here: 

Bach D, Groesbeck G, Stapleton P, Sims R, Blickheuser K, Church D. (2019) Clinical EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) Improves Multiple Physiological Markers of Health. Journal of Evidence-Based Integrative Medicine. doi:10.1177/2515690X18823691 

Leano, A., Korman, M. B., Goldberg, L., & Ellis, J. (2019). Are we missing PTSD in our patients with cancer? Part I. Canadian oncology nursing journal = Revue Canadienne de nursing oncologique, 29(2), 141–146. 

Pranjic, N., Bajraktarevic, A., & Ramic, E. (2016). Distress and PTSD in patients with cancer: Cohort study case. Materia socio-medica, 28(1), 12–16. 


About the Author

Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specializing in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.

Tim was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.

Help is Available

Prostate Cancer Specialist Telenursing Service

If your life has been impacted by prostate cancer, our Specialist Telenursing Service is available to help. If you would like to reach out to the PCFA Prostate Cancer Specialist Telenurse Service for any questions you have about your prostate cancer experience, please phone 1800 22 00 99 Monday - Friday 9am - 5pm, Wednesday 10am-8pm (AEST).

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PCFA is proud to have a national network of affiliated support groups in each state and territory of Australia consisting of men and women who have a passion for assisting others who encounter prostate cancer. This network is made up of over 170 affiliated groups who meet locally to provide one-to-one support, giving a vision of life and hope after treatment. Call us on 1800 22 00 99 to find your local group.

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