When the Psychotherapist Meets Cancer

I always thought that I’ve done very well in building up resilience, taking care of my physical and mental health, since that is basically what I do for a living. I am a Psychotherapist and am specialized in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). I love the CBT approach in working with clients since it is a here-and-now approach, is time-limited, and is structured. I offer individualized treatment plans for each client that outline clear behavioral goals, as well as take an active role in coaching my clients by directing their therapy and assigning homework.

After undergoing a biopsy, my OB/GYN told me on my daughter’s 2nd birthday, “Unfortunately, it’s cancer”. I just sat there, repeatedly saying, “No, that can’t be true!”. I completely went into freeze response. It was like an out-of-body experience, while I was standing on the Edge of the Abyss, all around me was complete darkness. As I was shaking and crying, all I could continuously say was, “No, that can’t be true!”.

(The definition of Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn is the body’s natural physiological reaction to stressful events. It is activated by the perception of threat, quickly igniting the sympathetic nervous system and releasing hormones to reach the underlying goal of springing into fight, flight, freeze or fawn to decrease, end, or evade danger and to return to a state of calm and control.)

My OB/GYN’s office scheduled my first CT scan for three hours later and as my husband, who was thankfully with me at the appointment, brought me outside the office, I started throwing up while I talked to my sister on the phone telling her, “I have cervical cancer”.

At this point, I knew nothing about “my cancer”. Had it spread? Am I going to die? What stage am I? Will I see my girls graduate high school? Is it treatable? What is the chance that my cancer can be cured? What other tests and procedures do I need? How can I deal with that? I’m not the type of person that will be able to handle something like this.

The day after my diagnosis, there I was, sitting with all those thoughts, feelings, and emotions, not knowing what to do. I knew nothing anymore; I wasn’t even able to think. On this beautiful summer day, everything seemed to disappear into this deep fog surrounding me.

I, the psychotherapist, who always comes up with great treatment plans for all kinds of mental health problems my clients are dealing with, but who is now unable to even stop my own thoughts and worries. Wow, great job. I was disappointed in myself. I was disappointed in what my body had done to me by developing this cancer. And on top of that, I wasn’t even able to drag myself into a more positive state of mind. Hell, I could not even think one, clear thought.

So, when I wanted to cry, I cried. When I wanted to scream, I screamed. When I wanted to sleep, I slept.  When I wanted to talk, I talked. And I went on walks, a lot of quiet, long walks. At one point, I went on Google and gathered information about cervical cancer. I reminded myself about one of the things I tell my clients, “Information is on the other side of fear”. 

Then I realized that what is happening is grief. I’m grieving my cervical cancer diagnosis. I’m right in the middle of it and my psyche is doing what it’s supposed to do all on its own. 

We usually reserve the word, grief, for loss, secondary to death. Well, that’s just one form of grief. Grief is an adjustment to loss. When we get our cancer diagnosis, that is loss. Loss of potential quality of life, loss of certain physical functionality. It may even be the loss of time. At some point, everyone WILL go into grief. However, not everyone will go through the stages in a prescribed order, there is no linear and predictable pattern, and we often switch back and forth between the stages.

The classical, six stages of grief are simply tools to help us frame and identify what we may feel during our cervical cancer journey:

Denial: Feelings of avoidance, shock, fear, confusion. Believe that the diagnosis is somehow wrong and holding on to a different reality.

“I feel fine.” – “No, this can’t be happening to me.”

Anger: Feelings of frustration, anger, anxiety. Faced with the new reality, looking for someone/something else to fault, to leash out.

“Why me?” – “It’s not fair.” – “How can this happen to me.”

Bargaining: Struggling to find meaning. Seeking to get out of facing the new reality by promising something to change or to do differently or seeking for help through a higher power.

“I’ll do/give anything for a good outcome/a few more years.”

Depression / Sadness: Feelings of being overwhelmed, helpless, hopeless. Settling into sadness and unable to move forward.

“Live will never be the same…” – “What’s the point of going on?”

Acceptance: Feeling of exploring different options, a new plan in place, moving on. Embracing the new reality and finality of what has happened.

“I’m going to be ok.” – “I can fight it.” – “I may as well prepare for it.”

The more we give grief space to run its course, the more likely we are to have a better outcome. Sometimes we feel guilty for taking too long to grieve. NO, WE DON’T TAKE TOO LONG! Emotions work their way through us, don’t fight them, don’t rush them.

Years ago, I went to a lecture about grief and the professor added “Finding meaning/Purpose” as the last stage of grief in the circle and that stuck with me. Now, I always add that stage for my clients because I have experienced it myself.

Finding meaning/Purpose:

  • Help other people with the same diagnosis by sharing your story
  • Write a book
  • Pull back from work/toxic people
  • Join an organization
  • Smell/water flowers
  • Take a walk every day
  • See the beauty of life

For me personally, finding meaning/purpose just started in November 2021 (yup, not too long ago), when I decided to participate in one of Cervivor’s Creating Connections virtual meetups. I’ve always been pretty private about my cancer diagnosis. I was terrified about this cancer, I just wanted it to go away, I did not want to share anything with anyone other than my closest family. 

At this first meetup, I literally just listened to the other participants and there was so much hope, so much encouragement, and so many awesome ideas being shared for the upcoming Cervical Cancer Awareness Month (CCAM) in January, that I decided to participate in a second meetup. There, I started to introduce myself, shared a little bit of my story, and thought about ways to integrate some mental health ideas into CCAM.

Since then, I participated in Cervivor’s CCAM virtual activities and even spoke about self-care and mental health at the Cervivor Summit 2022. And today, here I am, continuing to find my meaning/ purpose. 

“Cancer cannot cripple love, it cannot shatter hope, it cannot conquer the spirt.” ~Author Unknown

Jessica Martin was born in Germany and holds a M.Sc. in Psychology. She moved to the USA in 2018 and was diagnosed with cervical adenocarcinoma 1B2 shortly after her move. Jessica is passionate about the mental health aspect for healing.

Taking Care of Your Mental Health

A cancer diagnosis rocks your entire world! No matter where you are in life, hearing that you have any cancer is an enormous hit. 

I was 26 years old in 2018 when I received my cancer diagnosis. I was working as a security officer and learning to cope with a new mental illness diagnosis from an unrelated event. I was struggling mentally, but I was also having some physical issues. I was noticing changes in my body. My periods got longer, the pain wouldn’t stop, and I went to the emergency room. The doctor told me I had an enlarged cervix during that visit and treated me with antibiotics. When I had my yearly pap test, they found a mass and wanted to do a biopsy. It was at that moment that I became full of anxiety. I was full of fear. All I heard was “cancer,” “hysterectomy,” and “no kids.” How would I manage? How would I tell my family? How would I FEEL? 


Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t handle my anxiety and depression with care. I tried to avoid conversations. It wasn’t until my cancer diagnosis that I realized how important mental health is as a part of our overall well-being! My father always told me that we could never make sound decisions without a clear mind. I used that as a basis for taking care of myself. I needed my mind clear to remember appointments, to remember medicines, to communicate with my team, the people around me, and so much more. I needed a clear mind to advocate for my care. 


After my cancer diagnosis, I had to deal with many different feelings. The top three were anger, sadness, and guilt. I couldn’t wrap my head around having cancer and the future of no children. I felt like I had to make decisions quickly, although I talked it through with my parents. The talks of infertility, menopause, and treatment weeks made my head spin. I almost didn’t go through with the chemo and radiation. At some points, I felt like less than a woman because I could no longer naturally reproduce and I no longer functioned the way I used to. I had a lack of libido, so sex wasn’t so appealing to me. These were some of the things I found it hard to talk about, so at times, I suffered silently. 


A support system is vital in finding mental/emotional stability before and after a cancer diagnosis. Most importantly, self-care is an excellent way to ensure that you find some ease in dealing with day-to-day routines. After realizing that my parents and fiancée would be there the whole way through, it eased my paranoia, and I felt empowered. I vowed to live life in the very moment and heed my tattoo to learn to accept the things I cannot change and have the courage to change the things I can, with wisdom to know the difference (Serenity prayer). 

Another way I coped before/after my diagnosis was meditation for at least 15 minutes each day. I affirmed that I would be healed, proclaimed that I would find peace, and declared that I would find a way to raise awareness and do what I can to teach people around me about how important it is to care for ourselves.

I saw a therapist at least twice a week a to talk and not see judgment. It was some of the best conversations I’ve ever had. My therapist helped me make sense of a lot of my emotions. She helped me see when I would misplace my anger and got me into journaling, which is another excellent way to cope and get things off your chest. 

Joining a support group also played a part in my mental health. I connected with other women who were feeling the same; they got it. I joined at least three or four different groups. They were all caring and positive. We shared our feelings, thoughts, and encouraged one another. Usually, I would not join groups like this, but they were safe spaces.  It made me feel good and at peace, but sometimes I would feel guilty that I complained so much, and as it seemed some women were enduring so much more than me. Now, I understand that I don’t have to write off my pain to validate someone else’s. Empathy is real!  I would advise you not to join or leave any support group that makes you feel bad or does not resonate with what you are looking for. 

Although cancer can make you feel exhausted, disabled, and empty, it can also make you feel empowered, tenacious, and beautiful. Remember that you are worth it. You shouldn’t be ashamed to seek mental health advice when your anxiety or stress feels too heavy. Some fun and creative ways to help relax would be arts, coloring books, and music. Talk it out or write it down, but it is never healthy to hold it in. Also, remember that it is OKAY NOT to BE OKAY! We often think that we must be strong for everyone around us, but we don’t have to pretend that we do not need a shoulder to lean on sometimes. 

Kyana is part of our Cervivor community and is a survivor of stage IIIB cervical cancer. Diagnosed at 26 years old, she found empowerment through Cervivor. Cervivor’s online groups taught her how to be more vocal about her care and spread awareness so that others are able to feel that same empowerment and advocate for themselves. Kyana shares her story in hopes that it will teach just one person about the importance of self-advocacy and preventative care, and to eliminate stigmas.