Holistic Cancer Support and Care

From nutrition to emotional support, these 6 people can help you during cancer treatment

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 23, 2009

When you think of cancer support and treatment, you probably think of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. But there’s a lot more to fighting cancer than destroying cancer cells.

During cancer treatment, you need to eat well and keep a healthy weight. You need to know where to turn with questions about your treatment or its side effects. You might need help coping with the emotional impact of cancer. So while you might not usually think of a dietitian or a social worker or therapist as important cancer support, they often are.

“We have to look at a person’s medical care from a holistic perspective,” says Terri Ades, MS, APRN-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. While your doctor’s main job may be to focus on the cancer, other health professionals will work hard to keep the rest of you healthy.

Here’s an introduction to six health care professionals you might lean on for cancer support during treatment.

Your Nurse: The Lead Person on Your Cancer Support Team

You won’t be surprised to hear that nurses play a role in your cancer treatment. But you may not realize how central they are to full cancer support.

“Nurses are a patient’s greatest advocate,” says Ades.

Harold J. Burstein, MD agrees. “I think nurses may be more likely than a doctor to see treatment from the patient’s point of view,” says Burstein, a staff oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

What kind of nurses will you see? All sorts. But your oncologist probably works closely with either an oncology nurse -- who has special training in treating cancer -- or a nurse practitioner. These nurses play a crucial part in managing and preventing the side effects of treatment, like nausea.

They also play an important role in helping you with everyday concerns. For instance, they can relay your concerns to the doctor. They might coordinate treatment with other experts on your cancer support team. They can guide you to cancer support services in the community. Over the course of treatment, patients often rely on their nurses a great deal.

“Nurses can often spend more time with the patient than their doctors answering questions and offering support,” Ades tells WebMD. “They often develop a comfortable, trusting relationship.”

Your Psychological Counselor: Key to Any Cancer Support Team

Living with cancer -- and undergoing cancer treatment -- can have a profound psychological impact. Many people become anxious or depressed. Seeing a therapist -- like a clinical social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist -- can be a key form of cancer support.

Therapists can help you with many different aspects of your cancer treatment. He or she can help you grapple with some of the frightening big issues that cancer raises. But therapists can also help you deal with day-to-day practical issues. How should you talk to your children about your cancer? How much should you tell your boss and co-workers about your situation?

Some cancer centers have therapists on staff. Your doctor can also refer you to an outside counselor in the area who specializes in cancer support.

Your Social Worker: Helping You Find Cancer Support Resources

Social workers are often a key figure in cancer support teams, since they can help in many different ways. They can be a crucial emotional support, helping you and your family cope with the stresses of cancer treatment.

But social workers also help with practical things. For instance, they can track down cancer support groups, transportation, and other community resources you might need. They can help you understand any confusing aspects of treatment and even assist with paperwork.

Your hospital should have social workers on staff that you can see. Some health care centers might even have oncology social workers on staff, who are specially trained in cancer support. If you’d like, you could also choose to see a social worker who practices outside the hospital for regular therapy. See if you can find one who specializes in treating people coping with illness.

Your Spiritual Advisor: The Personal Advisor on Your Cancer Support Team

For a lot of people and their families, faith and prayer are crucial to getting through cancer treatment. According to the National Cancer Institute, some studies show that people with strong religious belief may have less pain, anxiety, and depression. Sometimes, coping with cancer can challenge your faith, and you may need to talk to someone about your concerns.

Seeking out a spiritual advisor for cancer support is a good idea. It could be a religious leader in your community, such as a priest, minister, or rabbi. Or you could ask to speak with the chaplain who is on staff in the hospital. Of course, a spiritual advisor doesn’t have to have an official title. You may find great comfort in meeting with close friends in a prayer circle instead.

Your Dietitian: The Importance of Nutrition in Cancer Support

If you’re getting cancer treatment, good nutrition may be the last thing on your mind. You may be too busy and too tired to bother with a balanced diet. Besides, cancer and its treatment can make eating difficult. You may have nausea, diarrhea, mouth sores, and a loss of appetite.

But eating a healthy diet is even more important when you’re undergoing the emotional and physical stress of cancer treatment. A dietitian can advise you on easy ways to get the nutrients you need. Some people undergoing cancer treatments are prone to rapid weight loss. A dietitian can offer vital cancer support in these cases. He or she can make sure that your diet is giving you the calories and protein you need to keep your weight up.

Most hospitals have dietitians on staff. If you’re interested in seeing a dietitian or nutritionist, ask your doctor or nurse. You could also see a dietitian outside of the health center, but look for someone who is an expert at providing cancer support.

Your Physical Therapist: Preserving Strength During Cancer Care

Cancer -- and its treatment -- can really knock you off your feet. But if you’re laid up and inactive for too long, you rapidly lose muscle strength. So consider adding a physical therapist to your cancer support team. Muscle weakness can delay your recovery and make it more difficult. Physical therapists can help you keep up your strength during treatment and get you back up to speed afterward.

Cancer and cancer treatment can also cause physical changes that you’ll need to adjust to. For instance, if you have surgery, you may need special exercises to rebuild your muscle strength afterward. If your doctor doesn’t suggest physical therapy, ask about it. Also, check to see if your health insurance covers physical therapy during or after cancer treatment.

The Key to Cancer Support: Asking for Help

Of course, you may not see all of these experts. Depending on your case, you may only need to see a few. But if you’re about to start treatment -- and are feeling alone and afraid -- it’s important to know the types of cancer support that are out there if you need them.

“Remember that you’re not alone,” says Burstein. “My patients always tell me that the more you seek out help, the better help you get.” All you have to do is ask.

Show Sources


Terri Ades, MS, APRN-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information, the American Cancer Society, Atlanta.

Jan C. Buckner, MD, chair of medical oncology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. Harold J. Burstein, MD, staff oncologist, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; assistant professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston. National Cancer Institute web site: “How to find a doctor or treatment facility if you have cancer,” “Spirituality in Cancer Care PDQ: Health professional version,” “Your Healthcare Team: Your Doctor is Only the Beginning,” “Taking Time: Support for People with Cancer,” “Nutrition in Cancer Care PDQ: patient version.”

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