It’s completely normal to be worried about what’s going to happen to your body and how you’re going to feel during your treatment. All cancers are different, and some treatments will take more of a physical toll on the body than others. Many people are aware of the possibility of hair loss and weight fluctuations, but side effects and when they appear all differ from person to person. The type of cancer you have and what stage it’s at will determine the treatment you have and how long it will go on for. Your GP, specialist and health team will be able to explain what you can expect, what is likely to happen during your treatment and some of the possible side effects.

Talking to Your Doctor

Managing Side Effects


Clinical Trials

Talking to a Counsellor

Building your Support Network






As you’re going through a strange and often uncomfortable process, you’ll have many questions along the way. Don’t worry, your doctor has heard everything and nothing you say or ask is irrelevant or silly. People are often concerned they have a limited time at their appointments, but a good GP or specialist will make time to reassure and answer questions. 

Going to an appointment prepared is always a good thing. In between appointments you might think of questions, or note down symptoms you want to discuss. Having these written down will help clarify what you want to talk about.

Your first appointment

The first time you see your cancer specialist (often an Oncologist) after your diagnosis can be daunting. Take a friend or loved one with you and take a list of questions you want to ask.

Questions you might have before treatment:

  • What type of cancer do I have?
  • What stage is it and what does that mean for me?
  • What type of treatment are you recommending and why?
  • What does this treatment involve?
  • What are the possible side effects?
  • Will the treatment affect my ability to have children?
  • How much will the treatment cost? Is it covered by Medicare or my private insurance?
  • Can I drive home after treatment or will I need help?
  • Will I be able to work during treatment?
  • Should I speak to other health care professionals before the treatment starts, such as a nutritionist or counsellor?
  • How will we know if the treatment is working?
  • What is my prognosis and the expected course of my cancer?
  • Are there any clinical trials I can participate in?
  • Are there any symptoms I should report straight away and to whom?

Your specialist will also be able to give you links to reading material from trusted sources, such as books, pamphlets or web addresses with more information.

Tips for talking to your health care team:

Carry a notepad to write down key points during your appointments or relay questions you’ve thought of between times. Take a family member or friend with you to write for you or ask things you don’t think of.

Tell your doctor if you’re using alternative or natural therapies as they can interfere with your treatment and your doctor needs to be aware of everything you are taking, so you get the best possible outcome.

If getting another referral and seeing another consultant makes you feel more confident in your treatment, ask your GP to refer you to another specialist. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Your health care team are there to help you. If you’re not sure, ask. If you’re not happy with any of your health care team, for whatever reason, speak to someone else about it. 

Questions you might have during and after treatment

What should I do if I have questions when I get home?

What sort of side effects should I expect at home and when should I be concerned?

What happens if I feel ill or experience symptoms in the middle of the night? Should I go to hospital? What’s the best phone number to have on hand?

Should I stay with family or friends or get someone to stay with me?

Do I need any special equipment or care at home?



The chances are that the treatment you have for your cancer will come with some side effects but they can, in a lot of cases, be controlled and managed with improvement being made all the time in methods of side effect treatments.

Your doctor will talk you through the sorts of side effects you can expect and the best way to manage them but don’t feel you have to just grit your teeth and get through it. Even if it changes, happen during your treatment, there are ways to manage the changing side effects.

Further Advice


1800 022 222 • 24hr health advice line staffed by registered nurses



13 11 20 • Australian Government Cancer Support



‘Look Good, Feel Better’ workshops provide advice and support about your appearance after changes through chemotherapy or radiotherapy.



A British cancer support group, provides comprehensive advice on managing the side effects of treatment.




It’s not uncommon to feel tired and weak during your cancer treatment. These are real symptoms and definitely require you to make adjustments to your physical activity. Being active will give you a feeling of having more control. Whilst you may initially have to make a concerted effort to get out and moving, the chances are you’ll feel much better when you regain some strength and focus your mind.

Doing some physical activity during the day might help you sleep at night too.

The types of things you can do, depending on your treatment, are walking, cycling, swimming, yoga, tai chi, pilates and dancing. Even things like gardening will get you out in the fresh air and give you a positive focus. Your health care team will be able to recommend what might be good for you and suggest an exercise physiologist to help get you started.


You might find it useful to keep a pain diary to keep a record for later reference when you speak to your doctor. Giving your doctor the best understanding of what you’re experiencing will help to manage your pain best and develop a plan.

You can keep a pain dairy in a notebook or use Pain Diary.

There are different options that will be considered for your pain management which can range from over-the-counter and subscription medications to surgery. Some people find alternative methods help relieve pain.

  • Taking an exercise class like yoga, or tai chi and meditating and relaxing are good ways to take your mind off your pain whilst keeping your body moving.
  • Having a massage or some acupuncture might also help. It’s always a good idea to let the person who is your therapist know you have cancer so they are aware.
  • Dietary changes and biofeedback (where instruments are used to help gain a better understanding of physiological functions) have also been found to help some people.

Pain can change during treatment so keep your doctor informed and see a pain specialist if you have trouble managing it.


When you have cancer, you might find your sex life is also affected. Being frequently tired can have an impact and your physical symptoms might also impact on your both your physical state and desire. Having cancer doesn’t mean you can’t have sex or be intimate. Discussing how you feel with your partner will be important so they can understand how you feel about sex during and after your treatment. A trusting relationship with your partner will help you through your cancer experience. 

Don’t feel awkward discussing your sexual health with your doctor. Talking to someone in your health care team about specific issues will help put you more at ease and increase the likelihood of continuing an enjoyable sex life during your cancer.



Some questions to ask your doctor:

  • Will the type of treatment I’m having for my cancer affect my ability to have children later on?
  • Is it safe to delay my cancer treatment until after fertility preservation treatment?
  • Will I be referred to a fertility specialist?

Some questions for your fertility specialist:

  • What’s your experience with freezing techniques for sperm, eggs, ovarian tissue, and embryos?
  • What are the best ways to increase my chances of having children in the future?
  • What are possible fertility procedures open to me now and what are costs for these?
  • Will Medicare or my insurance cover these costs?



Clinical trials are scientific tests of new treatments that are being developed that are now at the stage of testing on humans, rather than in laboratories. Trials also look at how existing medicines can be used to treat other conditions.

There may be clinical trials going on that could be right for you and your treatment. If you are interested in being considered for a trial, raise it with your specialist and they can advise on any trials that you might be suitable for you.

Clinical trials are not just used in research on new medications. Other areas include surgical methods, radiation therapy treatments, combination treatments and vaccines.

Every trial has it’s own criteria about who can and can’t participate. Factors such as age, current health and medical history as well as past treatments might all be considerations. If you fall outside of the criteria, you won’t be eligible to take part.

How do they work?

Patients must give their consent to participate in a trial and as a patient, you won’t suffer a reduced standard of care whilst participating in a trial.

Clinical trials aren’t a last chance scenario. You can take part in a trial at any time during your cancer treatment process if it fits in with your current treatment regimen.

A trial looks at a particular ‘scenario’ and how well a new or different treatment method works by comparing it to the current method or best practice. Doctors and researchers monitor patients closely so if you participate in a trial, be prepared to answer additional questions during your treatment and attend more appointments.

What are the benefits and risks of a taking part in a trial?

Understanding both the risks and benefits of a clinical trial is important before you begin. The process will be explained to you but you’ll also be asked to sign a consent form before the trial starts. It’s important to fully understand the trial and its focus before you sign, so you know what the potential risks and benefits are to you.

Possible benefits include:

  • The treatment might only be available through the trial.
  • The treatment used in the trial might be more effective than the current standard treatment.
  • You’ll receive regular and careful attention from doctors and researchers.
  • Results from the trial might help others in the future.

Possible risks and downsides:

  • The treatment could cause side effects or risks that the doctors aren’t yet aware of or that they don’t expect.
  • The requirements of the trial – meetings, questions, surveys, physical tests – can be strenuous and cause more stress, and take up often valuable time with friends or family
  • The trial drugs or treatment might be less effective than the current standard treatment.
  • If it’s a randomized trial, you will not be able to choose if you get the new treatment or the current standard one.
  • Check that your health insurance and care provider is aware that you’re taking part in a trial as they might not cover all the costs.

Is it right for me?

A trial is only right for you if you feel comfortable doing it. Talk it through with your GP or specialist to find out the aim of the trial, the possible risks and benefits, and who is sponsoring it. If you have to travel outside of your area to take part, consider whether you’ll be able to do this without it causing extra stress or effecting your health, as you may need to undergo more treatments than you’re currently having.

Before you consent to a trial you must make sure you check with your health insurer about whether your expenses will be covered and ask for confirmation in writing.

Being optimistic before the start a clinical trial is common. Be aware before you go into a clinical trial that the outcome may not be any different from your current treatment. However some patients take comfort knowing that while a trial may not have helped them personally, their participation has contributed to scientific knowledge and has advanced our progress towards a cure.

Australian Cancer Trials Database

Developed by Cancer Australia the database is available for those who have cancer and are considering taking part in a trial to test a new treatment. It can help you find out more about cancer trials as a basis for discussion with a cancer specialist. It is not a substitute for a discussion.

The site is comprehensive and accurate. It is updated weekly.



Finding a Counsellor

While a counsellor won’t solve your problems for you, they’ll help you find a way to deal with them and guide you through to your own solution. Counsellor’s won’t judge you, there’s no right or wrong, just your own feelings. What you say to a counsellor will remain confidential and you should always feel that you can say anything to them. Talking to counsellor and sharing your thoughts and feelings with them is not a sign of weakness but simply another way of helping you deal with every aspect of your illness.

There are a wide variety of counsellors and some might be more suitable for you than others and it might take you a few sessions to become comfortable and appreciate the benefits.

What’s right
for you?


This is one-to-one counselling, completely private where it’s just you and your counsellor. If you find you’re uncomfortable sharing with other people you don’t know well, this might be a suitable solution for you.


The whole family talks with the counsellor. These can be emotional as well as cathartic so understand this is not for everyone. Agree in advance what you want to discuss as there’ll be several voices wanting to be heard.


Talking with a counsellor together with your partner. Be prepared to listen as well as talk.


One counsellor provides guidance to a group of people in a similar situation, often with the same type or stage of cancer.

Support groups

Connecting to people in the same situation often provides a welcome outlet for patients, carers or survivors of cancer.

What do I talk about?

Your counsellor is there for you to talk about anything you feel you want to discuss. It’s a time for you to share your thoughts and feelings without fear of judgement or offers of help. 

Discussions can in include:

  • How you’re coping with your cancer diagnosis
  • How you’re coping with the emotions of people close to you
  • Feelings of sadness, worry, depression or hopelessness
  • Sleep issues and things that keep you awake
  • Relationships changes with your family and friends
  • Challenges around managing your pain
  • Partnership worries and diminished feelings
  • Decision making around work and family issues
  • ‘Why me?’ questions

Don’t feel that there are right or wrong things to talk about. 

Counselling, a who’s who

Within the counselling profession there are many different types of professionals who all offer slightly different skills in the field of counselling. Terms you may have heard are psychotherapists, psychologist, therapist, counsellor, or mental health specialist.

Title of health professional

Professional training

What they do

Psychiatrist (MD)

Medical doctors trained in psychiatry

Specialise in diagnosing, preventing and treating mental illness. They can prescribe medication and look at the relationship between the physical and mental health of a patient.


Trained in human behaviour, research and counselling. Qualified to give psychological tests and assessments.

Provide individual, couples, family and group therapy. Trained in mental health issues and must be accredited through the APS - Australian Psychological Society.

Social workers

May be trained in counselling and coordinate with other professionals.

Work with individuals, families, groups and communities to provide support and improve the wellbeing of that person or group through system and structural ways. AASW -Australian Association of Social Workers

Marriage and family therapist

Focus on marriage, partnership and family issues.

Help couples and families either in one-to-one or group sessions

Pastoral counsellor

May be affiliated to a ministry as well as being trained in counselling.

Provide counselling to individuals, families or groups on specific issues, in the context of religion or spirituality.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (NP, MSN, RN, DNsc

Registered nurses with specific psychiatric mental health training.

Usually one-to-one counselling with a speciality in mental health illness and substance abuse.

It’s important that whoever you choose has the right experience and qualifications. Your GP or specialist will have a list for your area and be able to help you find someone suitable.

How about costs?

Establish at the outset of your counselling sessions what the cost of each session is. Some counsellors offer a reduced cost if you book a block of sessions in advance. But counselling can be expensive so ask your health professionals if any free or low-cost alternatives are available.

Medicare rebates are available for psychological treatment by registered psychologists under the Better Access to Mental Health Care initiative. People with mental health problems can gain financial assistance for counselling through this scheme. There are restrictions on which mental health problems can be treated under this initiative.

It covers conditions such as:

  • Alcohol use disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • Bereavement disorder
  • Depression
  • Drug use disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Phobic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Sexual disorders
  • Sleep problems

To be eligible, you must be referred by your GP who will prepare a Mental Health Treatment Plan before referring you to a psychologist.

If you meet the eligibility criteria Medicare will cover up to 10 individual sessions in a calendar year (Jan-Dec) with your referring doctor carrying out an assessment of your progress after six months. Medicare will also cover up to 10 group therapy sessions in a calendar year where these sessions are appropriate and available and referred by your doctor and psychologist.

Psychology and counselling sessions can be expensive. Frequently the Medicare rebate doesn’t cover the entire cost of a session and you will have to pay the difference between the counsellor’s cost and the rebate. Bulk billing is sometimes available, particularly to those with a health card or pensioners, in which case you may not need to pay anything.

Check your private health insurance cover. Different providers offer different levels of cover for different mental health issues. Policies can also differ both in the number of sessions and the cost for each session so check your individual policy.



We’re all different. Some people like to have a broad network of people around them during their cancer journey, others prefer a more solitary approach, sharing it with just one or two people. In some cases others  go through it alone, either by necessity or choice.

Generally however, it’s a good idea to create a support system that can help you emotionally and practically when you need it. Consider too your closest carers and what support they’ll need to help you and themselves.

If you don’t have any close family or friends you feel can help you, you still don’t have to go through your experience alone. Your health care team can recommend a social worker. Some not-for-profit organisations also run support groups or provide telephone-based support.

A support system helps in a number of ways, both practically and emotionally.

Practical help might include:

  • Helping you keep track of appointments and health records
  • Taking you to and from appointments.
  • Help with insurance or financial arrangements.
  • Help with day-to-day needs or find groups that can help you.
  • Simply being available to listen and talk when you need to.
  • Be your point of contact for your broader network of friends.

Asking for help

Many people find it hard to ask for help, but when you’re unwell for long periods of time you might have to. There are times when you won’t feel well enough to help yourself so having a support network around you can be vital.

Finding someone to speak on your behalf as an advocate is also  invaluable. Friends, family or someone you trust can speak on your behalf, help and support you.

While they won’t make decisions about your treatment or care, they can be there for you during your appointments, help you find new health care providers, or research treatments and trials that might help you.

Navigating your way through your treatment, possibly through different hospitals or facilities can be challenging. Many hospitals provide Cancer Care Coordinators who work inside the hospital system and help patients through the complex networks of treatments and professionals often required.

How to marshal your support crew

Often in times of crisis you might find you’re inundated with offers of help or support. Your close family and friends often want to help in any way they can but so too do people in your broader network. Saying yes or no to offers of support can be hard when you’re not well, especially when people ask what they can do, meaning you have to think of an answer.

Sometimes you might select someone to be your ‘help coordinator’ to coordinate the offers of help.

You need somebody with a good practical and organisational head for this role, often a friend rather than a family member.

As soon as possible, try to get as organised as possible. Think about both what you need personally and what you would do to help someone else in your situation.

Write down a list of practical things people can do if they ask ‘Is there anything I can do?’ 

This can be specific (pick the children up every Tuesday and Thursday while I’m at my appointment, pick up fresh fruit from the greengrocer every Monday) or more general (find me some recommendations for a good local massage). Generally people will do what you ask because they want to help.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help as a good support system will reduce your stress levels and allow you to focus on getting better. If you don’t have a ‘ready made’ network, find a social worker, counsellor or volunteer support group in your area that’s right for you.

Delegate tasks. Things still need to get done like cooking, cleaning or watering the garden. Asking other people to help will give you closest carers (usually husbands and wives) a break too.

Dealing with other people when you have cancer

You are not responsible for dealing with other people’s emotions about your cancer. It can be very draining for someone suffering with cancer to ‘manage’ others reactions, either one-off or ongoing, to their cancer. Be prepared for a mixed reaction when you tell people you have cancer. People often don’t know what to see, especially if they’re unaware you’ve been ill. Allow people some latitude in their reactions, as it might take them a while to come to terms with it and adjust to their feelings. 

You might find that initially, you have to be the one comforting others.

If you want to limit your communication with others, especially those outside your close friends, ask people to communicate by email, text or social networks. That way you can control things and update large groups of people at once.

People generally just want to offer messages of support and know about your progress. However saying the same thing over and over can be physically and emotionally draining so either say in advance that you’ll update only when you feel up to it, or delegate this task to a ‘coordinator’. This saves you from having to feel you have to keep people up to date.

Your cancer and treatment is also going to have a profound effect on those people around you who love and care for you. Your family and loved ones will try to support you but it will be difficult for them to see you suffer, so let them know how much you value their support, and that you realise it effects them too. 

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