Alberta Cancer Foundation

The Power of Talking

Dr. Jill Turner is a clinical psychologist.

At first, Kristi Sainchuk dealt with her breast cancer  diagnosis with humour. Despite requiring a radical mastectomy on her left side, as well as chemotherapy and numerous rounds of radiation, she says she was able to stay positive throughout her treatment. For her, emotional difficulties arrived after she had to get back to “regular” life.

“Everyone kept saying to me, ‘Aren’t you excited it’s over?’ But I found I wasn’t coping well dealing with the minutiae of life,” says Sainchuk. “I still had to go to work or go to Costco to get groceries. I thought, is this what I fought so hard for? Aren’t I supposed to be living every day like it’s my last? But life isn’t like that. I didn’t realize it, but I was really angry and sad.”

After having a nervous breakdown in the grocery store, Sainchuk knew she needed to find additional support. So, she began seeing Dr. Jill Turner, a clinical psychologist at the Alberta Health Services Department of Psychosocial and Spiritual Resources at the Cross Cancer Institute, Westmount site.

Cancer can be an isolating experience that can take an emotional toll on patients and their family members, which is why the Department of Psychosocial and Spiritual Resources focuses on supporting individuals’ mental, emotional, social and spiritual well-being, collectively known as psychosocial oncology. Here, all are encouraged to talk through their own experience with cancer, which can help them realize they’re not alone.

“Our department helps patients and families as they experience cancer, whether that’s before, during or after treatment,” explains Turner. “We have four psychologists, four social workers and two spiritual care providers who help address cancer-related concerns.”

One of the ways the department offers psychosocial support is through one-on-one counselling. Whether individuals are looking for psychological support to explore the emotions accompanying a cancer diagnosis, non-denominational spiritual support to explore meaning of life questions, or practical assistance with matters like accommodation, discharge planning or medical coverage, there are trained professionals on staff to help.

“I think the one-on-one counselling offers a person a chance to talk freely and genuinely. It’s hard to do that with family and friends sometimes,” says Dr. Noëlle Liwski, another clinical psychologist in the department. Liwski adds that, for family members, this individualized type of counselling is a chance to feel supported, as cancer can be an emotional and lonely experience for them, too.

In addition to individual counselling, the department also offers a variety of support groups. “Groups can connect people who may be experiencing something similar, reducing feelings of isolation or loneliness, and normalizing feelings they might be having,” says Turner.

The department’s past group sessions and classes have included coping skills, grief workshops, sessions on mindfulness relaxation and advice for therapeutic lifestyle changes. Liwski also facilitates a group called “Living Well in the Here and Now,” a popular workshop that uses Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a mindfulness-based type of behavioural therapy, to help patients and their family members live a hopeful, value-based life with or after cancer.

Both psychologists emphasize that there’s no “right” way to experience all that the department offers. Ultimately, the department helps anyone who is struggling with their own personal cancer experience, regardless of their timeline.

In Sainchuk’s case, she turned to the department two years after her diagnosis. Visiting provided an outlet for Sainchuk to finally speak frankly about how she was feeling post-cancer. Turner also encouraged Sainchuk to discover what made her happy, and recommended she try the department’s group sessions and classes. This suggestion opened doors to new, therapeutic experiences for Sainchuk — she tried Japanese weaving, an art form that connected her with other cancer survivors and that continues to bring fulfillment to Sainchuk’s life.

“When I sat down at that loom and started to weave with all these women who also went through cancer treatment, it was the first time that I felt joy after being sick,” says Sainchuk. “The department made me feel like I wasn’t alone and that I could say things that I was feeling, and I would then get support. It was a gateway into many different types of healing for me.”

The Department of Psychosocial and Spiritual Resources has service locations in Edmonton at the Cross Cancer Institute and the Westmount Shopping Centre. Psychosocial services are also available in other locations for patients across the province. For more information, visit albertahealthservices.ca

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