Do You Need a Cancer Coach?

Cancer survivors turn to wellness coaches for guidance.

“Her strength and support helped me walk away from my production company, and I don’t think I could have done it without her,” she continues. “Paula didn’t tell me what to do, but she made me realize that I could do what I needed to do and survive.”

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.

While life coaching has been around for several decades, it has recently gained more prominence in the cancer community, thanks in part to the newer field of wellness coaching for survivors. This arose out of a growing awareness—especially among patients themselves—that treatment often didn’t focus on the whole person but rather on the disease.

Pam Schmid, a breast cancer survivor, knows firsthand how difficult the path is to optimal well-being after a cancer diagnosis. “The bumps in the road are numerous,” says Schmid, a health and fitness professional. “I knew what I needed to do to be healthy, but I had one setback after another, as a result of all the side effects of treatment. I knew if I was having trouble, others were, too.”

“People, in general, have trouble managing weight, exercising and eating healthy,” she says. “Add a cancer diagnosis to that, and you have even more of a challenge.”

Schmid established a wellness coaching program focused entirely on cancer survivors and, with the help of Galantino, performed some of the first research around that work. In their study, published in The International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences in December 2009, 20 breast cancer survivors, seven prostate cancer survivors and three colorectal cancer survivors participated in six sessions of wellness coaching over a three-month period. Participants showed various improvements, including decreased depression and anxiety, increased physical activity, better motivation and a healthier diet. 

Developing a trusting growth-promoting relationship, building confidence, fostering positive emotions and having a specific plan to facilitate change increases hope and feelings of well-being.

“A life coach is different than a wellness coach in that a life coach meets you wherever you are on your journey,” says De Long, an associate certified coach through the International Coach Federation and a certified professional co-active coach through The Coaches Training Institute. “Some patients may not be interested so much in wellness as in what’s next. Life coaching creates empowerment in whatever is going on in your life, and helps you to be proactive, to clear away angst and drama, and gives you the tools to make healthy choices.”

De Long knows what it’s like to face difficult choices after cancer. After her treatment, she left a high-profile executive position for a low-paying, mid-level job before she felt inspired to launch a coaching business to help other survivors.

“It took me three years to get my life back, and that was too long and too hard,” De Long says.

Other studies have indicated that coaches can help patients communicate better with their doctors about pain issues, among other healthy behavior changes. And these positive changes were sustained more than a year later.

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