Dr. Tommy Bischoff, Ph.D., LMFT, is an experienced therapist specializing in grief and loss, couples counseling, trauma, depression, anxiety, infertility, and self-esteem. He is a cancer survivor and offers video consultations as a part of The After Cancer's Care Team.
The shock of a cancer diagnosis
I had been practicing as a therapist for about four years when I first discovered I had cancer. I was in the middle of my third year of a Ph.D. program and my wonderful wife had given birth to our precious daughter just two months prior to the fateful day. The diagnosis was shocking as I grappled with this life altering news and subsequently commenced a new journey as a cancer patient. Gratefully, it was caught early and I did not have to immediately begin treatment. In fact, I made it another three years before symptoms advanced to where treatment was merited and inescapable. Nevertheless, the looming nature of the cancer made for an emotional, mental, and physical three-year struggle to accept the diagnosis and the inevitability of needing treatment.
The lifelong journey of a cancer survivor
Fast forward to present day, after having completed two years of cancer treatment, I have assumed the identity of a cancer survivor. I am grateful to be alive, to be and feel healthier, and enjoy life with my amazing and supportive family. Yet, like many others, as a cancer survivor I am still surviving. Like many cancer diagnoses, mine is treatable but incurable, and I live with the threatening and unwanted thoughts that it can and most likely will return. My prognosis is good, and at the same time it is important to acknowledge the lifelong journey of being a cancer survivor. Even after the good news, even after health comes back and life resumes some normalcy, a cloud still remains - questions still arise, worried thoughts continue, and feelings of all kinds surrounding cancer life still present themselves. If you are like me, perhaps you have had similar thoughts and feelings. But that is okay. You are normal. You are okay, and this is all part of the journey.
My Masters and Ph.D. programs specialized in Marriage and Family Therapy. One of my main specialties is working with couples to improve their relationship- developing better communication, overcoming infidelity or other breaches of trust, and increasing emotional connection. In addition to the unique focus on relationships, I was also proficiently trained to work with mental and emotional health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Another specialty of mine is working with grief and loss, which can take many forms, such as: death, loss of health, infertility, loss of job, loss of a relationship, or loss of a dream.
Taken together, I have a strong skillset and perspective for working with individuals and couples. Indeed, each person has their own internal and external struggles, but these challenges do not exist in a vacuum. They exist amidst and are reciprocally influenced by the environment and context in which said individual lives, including but not limited to: family, friends, neighbors, work and colleagues, hobbies, faith and spirituality, etc. The cancer journey exists in like manner.
Relationships during and after cancer
You and the people around you are influenced by the cancer experience- before, during, and after treatment. Acceptance and adjustment are important no matter where you find yourself with your cancer experience. One may need to process the internal feelings of grief, depression, and anxiety/fear of recurrence. Identity exploration and incorporation during and post cancer treatment may be necessary- who am I with cancer and who am I without it? Likewise, the impact the cancer and subsequent feelings have on your relationships and various roles you play can be challenging to navigate- how do I discuss my thoughts and feelings about my cancer experience? How should others ask and talk to me about it? How do I respond to insensitive comments and questions? What kind of support do I need and what do my partner or kids need? Even post cancer treatment there is an adjustment to becoming a couple again. Due to pain or sickness, intimacy may have significantly decreased. One partner may have become more of a caregiver rather than a romantic partner and transitioning back to equal romantic partners can be challenging.
Finally, whether you are in a dark place or doing well, therapy can be a great space to continue to grow and improve your mental, emotional, and relational well-being. With over ten years of experience, I am well-equipped and prepared to work with individuals and couples who may be experiencing the aforementioned items. As a cancer survivor, I have personal experience and understanding for the cancer journey, which has only increased my empathy, compassion, and respect for what you have and are going through. Thank you for taking the time to read this article, and best of luck to you and yours on your journey.