Do You Need a Cancer Coach?

Cancer survivors turn to wellness coaches for guidance.

Hildreth Stafford arrived at an unsettling juncture after treatment for breast cancer. She had endured a double mastectomy, radiation, aggressive chemotherapy, a hysterectomy and reconstructive surgery. She lost her hair, her eyebrows and her eyelashes, and her husband and young children were left reeling. When it was over, she felt like a different person. Once a hard-driving TV producer, she became fearful and stuck, unable to move forward.

“When I finished treatment, I knew my life was going to change dramatically,” recalls Stafford, 47, who received a diagnosis of stage 2 breast cancer in 2009. “I knew what I needed to do, but I just couldn’t do it. I decided I wanted a life coach to help me, and she completely changed my life.” 

Stafford interviewed several coaches by phone, and one of them directed her to Paula Holland De Long, a life coach, author and motivational speaker—and a fellow breast cancer survivor. For Stafford, that was just the connection she needed. After only two coaching sessions with De Long, Stafford felt equipped to act on her plan that alone she didn’t feel brave enough to carry out: In June 2010, she walked away from the successful television production company she co-owned. 

“Once I did it, I never looked back,” Stafford says. “It was so hard to walk away after more than 20 years in television, but Paula gave me the courage, the strength and the guidance to do it.”

Stafford is among a growing number of cancer patients turning to life and wellness coaches for guidance in a variety of areas—nutrition, exercise, work, relationships and stress management, for example. Coaches can help cancer patients across the continuum of care, from receiving a new diagnosis with complicated treatment options to end-of-life decision-making.

Although there may be some similarities, coaching is not the same as counseling or group therapy, says Mary Lou Galantino, PT, PhD, a certified wellness coach, clinician and physical therapy professor at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and an adjunct research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, where she conducts research on integrative medicine and chronic diseases. Wellness coaching is generally intended to create positive behavior changes through S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measureable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goals, in addition to providing a means of emotional support or exploration. It uses proactive and goal-oriented techniques and methods. Life coaching includes setting and achieving wellness goals, but also looks at “the bigger picture of a patient’s life,” Galantino says.

For Hildreth Stafford, the coaching she received from De Long was key to her emotional transformation. Especially important was their shared breast cancer experience.

“My friends and my husband were very supportive of me, but what I really needed was someone who had gone through what I had gone through,” Stafford says. “We had both been through hell and back, and I trusted her completely.”

Stafford, who lives in Georgia, did phone-based coaching with De Long, who lives in Florida. “It’s amazing that somebody I didn’t even know helped me change my life so much,” Stafford says.

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