A Reflection on Coaching, No Matter the Need

By Bonney Elliott on December 13 / 2019


Bonney Elliott is a Cancer Coach at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. 

This holiday season, I have much to be grateful for. I live in a beautiful, peaceful country. I am healthy.  I have great people in my life. I get to do fulfilling work. I am a Cancer Coach at the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, where my colleagues and I see people impacted by cancer at any time during their lives, including caregivers who have lost a loved one to cancer. This gives us a unique perspective on the bigger picture of the experience of cancer. While Coaching can be useful at any time during the continuum of cancer, we see key transition points, forks in the road where talking things out with a coach can be particularly useful. Some thoughts to keep in mind if you or someone you care for is considering Cancer Coaching.

Imagine hearing the words “you have cancer” right before the holidays. Would you tell everyone you know, or keep the news to yourself for a while? What would you do while waiting for results and your first appointment with a cancer specialist?  Most people go through a period of shock and overwhelming emotions. They have trouble sleeping and concentrating. Some spend hours surfing the internet for answers that lead to more confusion and dark imaginings about the road ahead. Others simply try to stay keep busy while they wait.

The focus of Cancer Coaching around the time of diagnosis tends to be about figuring out strategies for coping with stress, making a plan for sharing the news with family, friends and colleagues, finding reliable, digestible information, and preparing for medical appointments and the road ahead. When facing uncertainty, coming with a plan of action is empowering.

Once treatment starts, life gets very busy for individuals and families impacted by cancer. While the medical system treats the disease, Coaching focuses on the person and their life beyond cancer. Coaching can help with the many decisions to be made, such as balancing life and work around treatment schedules while managing side effects. Goals during treatment may be about taking back a measure of control of life, optimizing health, and preventing recurrence through physical activity, nutrition and lowering stress. Caregivers seek coaching to figure out how to best support their loved ones emotionally and practically through cancer treatment while coping with their own worries about the future.

After the bell rings, marking the end of active treatment, cancer survivors often tell us that the sense of relief they anticipated is eclipsed by exhaustion and fear. The adrenaline they tapped into to get through treatment is depleted. They want to resume life and work as it was, but struggle with a “new normal” of living with  lingering side effects such as cancer related fatigue, brain fog and hormonal effects; fears of recurrence;  and the impact of cancer treatment on confidence, body image, sexuality and relationships.

Coaching after treatment tends to focus on re-calibrating expectations for recovery, finding a balance between rest and activity, and exploring resources for coping with side effects and fear of recurrence, while coming up with a plan for a successful return to work or transition to new ways of living and working.

Many people impacted by cancer never get to” ring the bell”. They live with cancer as a chronic disease, where treatment is life-long and life altering. They cope and hope, enduring costly and experimental treatments to control the spread of the disease, while waiting for a cure. Living with cancer can be a struggle emotionally, physically, socially, financially, and spiritually.

The benefit of coaching around living with cancer is the individualized focus on the whole person, on quality of life and well-being. Our goals are to help people live well with cancer, which for one person may be about coping with uncertainty while doing whatever they can to address their physical health, and for another may be about finding joy and meaning in difficult circumstances.

No one wants to hear that the cancer has come back, but recurrence is a tough reality for many of the people we see for Coaching. Sometimes they are even coping with a second or third type of cancer. The focus of Coaching in recurrence can be around charting a new course, tapping into strengths they developed with their first experience of cancer, and finding tools and resources for coping this time around.

Nearing end-of-life, the needs of people living with cancer and their caregivers change. As the focus shifts from quantity to quality of life, Coaching can help with the many decisions to be made about living and dying well. Helping bereaved caregivers figure out next steps after losing a loved one to cancer is another phase of coaching, as they move through a grieving process that started with the words “you have cancer” through months or years of care giving through the highs and lows of cancer treatment and palliation.

Fortunately, cancer patients in this country receive a high caliber of medical care throughout treatment and beyond. However, as survival rates improve, there are widening gaps in meeting the needs of people impacted by cancer, who want to take charge of their health and live well while coping with uncertainty, the impact of cancer treatment, and the challenges of facing more complex decisions than ever before. Cancer coaching helps address these gaps.

Working in health care and as a Cancer Coach has altered my perspective of the holiday season. I cherish the simple moments of connection with family and friends, ever aware of the impact of cancer on so many people in our community over the holidays. If you or someone you love is at one of those forks in the road, whether that is waiting and worrying on test results, recovering from treatment, grieving a loved one, or making the most of what could be the last holiday together, please know that you are not alone. You can reach out to us.

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