Being told that you have cancer can be devastating. A thousand frightening thoughts race through your mind. "Am I going to die?" "How bad will the pain be?" "What about my family? "How will they handle the news?"

In addition to the anxiety surrounding the illness itself, living with cancer exposes patients to physical and emotional stress from painful and sometimes emotionally difficult treatments and their side effects.

If you or someone you love has cancer and you're feeling depressed, hopeless or anxious, talking to a mental health professional can help.

Some people may consider asking for help a weakness. But reaching out and recognizing you may need help requires a great deal of courage.

Psychological therapy is best provided as part of a coordinated treatment plan. You may want to see a psychologist who has experience working with cancer patients or others with serious illnesses.

For example, some may feel hesitant to talk to their physician about sexual problems that occur after treatment for cancer or serious illness, and many physicians may lack specific expertise in such areas. However, a couple can encounter problems if their sexual relationship is overwhelmed by physical discomfort, fear, anxiety or feelings of unattractiveness in the aftermath of cancer.

Treatment for cancer can be extremely difficult and painful — patients often develop anticipatory anxiety and nausea. Sometimes relaxation strategies can help patients tolerate it better.

A technique called "systematic desensitization" uses relaxation methods to help the patient confront fears related to treatment. At first, the patient and psychologist discuss and rank the various aspects of treatment. Then the patient uses a relaxation technique to induce a tranquil state.

When relaxed, he or she imagines various aspects of treatment as vividly as possible, beginning with the least frightening. Once the patient is relaxed imagining that particular procedure he or she moves to the next most frightening procedure. A patient does this until he or she is comfortable imagining the most painful or frightening procedure. Studies show that patients who use this method experience shorter and much less severe bouts of anticipatory nausea.

Copyright © 1997 by the American Psychological Association. All rights reserved.