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Grief & loss

Thursday 23 August, 2012

The VCOG Psycho-Oncology Committee recenty held a forum to explore the aspects of grief and loss caused by a cancer diagnosis, when no-one has died. David Horne presenting at the Psycho-Oncology Forum

Linda Cicciarelli, Associate Genetic Counsellor at the Familial Cancer Centre, Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute attended the forum and has given an account of the evening below. 

Sally Williams, a social worker and traning consultant shared her experience of brain cancer and the associated grief and loss. This was followed by three presentations:

PDFDownload Professor David Horne's presentation (58.3kb)
Detecting and managing grief and loss in the face of cancer 

PDFDownload Janet Phillip's presentation (2.23mb)
Grief and loss related programs and resources at Cancer Council Victoria 

PDFDownload Chris Hall's presentation (158kb)
Grief and Support: The role of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement 

Order free booklets: Loss and Grief: A guide for people with cancer and cancer survivors, their families and friends

Summary by Linda Cicciarell, Familial Cancer Centre, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre 

"Cancer is a life-changing event. It often changes the way people see themselves, their bodies and those around them. Priorities may change and people may seem to treat you differently. Many people say having cancer takes them on a journey involving a lot of loss and change in their life: loss and change that is very difficult to cope with causes grief"

This is the opening paragraph in a new booklet launched by Cancer Council Victoria titled 'Loss and Grief: A guide for people with cancer and cancer survivors, their families and friends'. It highlights the unique issues in grief, loss and change individuals and their families may experience as a result of a cancer diagnosis, and encompasses the themes explored by the presenters at the latest VCOG Psycho-Oncology seminar series.

The seminar aimed to educate health professionals with the current state of evidence and provide practical advice and therapeutic frameworks that are effective in supporting individuals in adjusting to the ‘new normal' of their post-cancer lives.

Alison Hocking, Head of Social Work at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre facilitated the session which was held at St Vincent's Hospital and comprised an audience predominantly of allied health professionals working in oncology.

VCOG Psycho-Oncology ForumSally Williams began the presentations by giving an emotional personal account of her experience with a diagnosis of cancer and its impact post diagnosis on life for her and her family. Sally was diagnosed with a brain tumour 4 years ago.

She had already witnessed her mother and maternal uncle develop brain tumours and sadly pass away as a result. There were days she grieved for what was, however Sally held onto her hope and optimism she would one day be well again.

When she was diagnosed with a recurrence of the brain tumour, she struggled to hold onto hope and described it as a 'loss of her innocence'. She has over time found a middle ground and now sees her journey as a balancing act - some days there is hope, other days there is fear and sadness.

Sally's cancer diagnosis has shaped her passion for assisting others to 'live' and not 'just survive' post cancer diagnosis, and this has helped Sally to be healthy and enjoy life. Sally's journey inspired her to write a book titled "Three Quotes from a Plumber" where she reflects upon her cancer diagnosis and subsequent journey to wellness.

Chris Hall, Director at Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement (ACGB) presented to the audience initially on the multi-faceted experience of grief, the type of losses an individual can experience following a diagnosis of cancer and the different styles of grieving.

The Leunig cartoon images throughout the presentation emphasised just how individual it can be to experience grief, loss and/or change. The remainder of the presentation focused on the new approach to grief and its common elements, particularly how an individual can come to a place of post-traumatic growth,the resources that are utilised by the ACGB and Chris' lifetime experience working in the area of grief and bereavement to support individuals to this place. For more information on ACGB, visit their website at  

Janet Phillips, Manager of the Cancer Council Helpline outlined the new booklet and focused on the area of grief and loss following a cancer diagnosis. The booklet was designed for people with cancer, cancer survivors and those close to them. It aims to help you understand how you can cope with the possible grief caused by any loss or chance in your life because of cancer. Janet also highlighted the valuable resources available from Cancer Council to support individuals and their families through all aspects of a cancer diagnosis and resources to educate health professionals. The booklet is now available; for more information contact the helpline on 13 11 20.

Professor David Horne, Professorial Associate in Medicine and Psychiatry, Royal Melbourne Hospital has spent a significant proportion of his professional career researching traumatic stress of people suffering serious physical and emotional injuries including cancer. His presentation on "Detecting and Managing Grief and Loss in the face of Cancer" outlined how the use of models of coping and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can mobilise the resources someone has and refocus to a position of post-traumatic growth. This was further emphasised by his presentations of two complex cases where the use of these models enabled his patients to adjust to their ‘new normal'.

The evening concluded with the presenters participating in a panel discussion. The audience raised questions on how to increase awareness about grief, loss and change in those with a new diagnosis of cancer. These focused on whether the use of language such as ‘grief' and ‘loss' in this setting may be misinterpreted by those with a new diagnosis as not relevant and decrease their likelihood to access the available supports.