Cancer Support Switzerland’s drop-in centre offers a welcoming space for visitors and a library with books and information © Cancer Support Switzerland

English-speaking cancer support across Switzerland
A conversation with Elina Viitaniemi, Director of Cancer Support Switzerland
1 Feb 2024

Facing cancer, whether your own or that of a loved one, turns your life upside down. When that happens in a foreign country, where systems and the language can be unfamiliar and you may be away from some of your closest support networks, it can be additionally challenging.

Why is there a need for English-language cancer support in Switzerland?

Switzerland is a country where around a quarter of the population are foreigners. Many speak English as their first or second language. In somewhere like Geneva, where Cancer Support Switzerland is based, the presence of the UN, CERN and other international organizations and companies means that the proportion of non-Swiss is even higher at around 40%. Indeed, as a Finnish national myself, it was the UN which initially brought me to Geneva. I worked at UNAIDS for 12 years before joining Cancer Support Switzerland.

In Switzerland, the trend towards an increased life expectancy coupled with an overall increase in population, means that the number of people affected by cancer will continue to rise over time. Our organization is here to provide support, not only for those who are directly affected by cancer, but for their loved ones too. We offer emotional support, practical help, well-being activities, and a welcoming community in English to anyone affected by cancer.

What kind of support do you offer?

A cancer diagnosis and the side-effects of treatment can lead to a whole range of feelings and emotions. Everybody’s experience is unique, and we aim to respond to their individual needs. Initially someone may want to meet with one of our professional counsellors, who can provide a safe and confidential space to talk to those with a recent cancer diagnosis, going through treatment or dealing with the illness of someone close. Individual, couple, and family sessions are all possible. This type of support can also be very valuable to someone who has lost a loved one to cancer.

Work and cancer coaching is available for people with a cancer diagnosis, and their direct caregivers, who may need to make adjustments to the way they work during treatment and afterwards. We can offer patients a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy programme and have separate art therapy classes for those undergoing cancer treatment, their direct carers, or for those who have been bereaved.

Talking with people who have lived through their own cancer experience can be enormously beneficial and we have monthly online and in-person support groups where people with a cancer diagnosis or caregivers can come together to share experiences in a safe environment. We also have a group of trained volunteers, who have often dealt with the impact of cancer in their own lives and are well-placed to provide one-on-one emotional or practical help. These Peer Supporters are ready to offer an understanding and sympathetic ear over the phone or during a home visit and can help with some of the everyday activities which can be more difficult to carry out when you’re unwell, such as grocery shopping, driving to medical appointments (they can even be a second pair of ears during a consultation), purchasing a wig or walking the dog.

Physical activity has been shown to reduce the possibility of relapses and recurrences of cancer. Our yoga and pilates classes are led by instructors who are specially trained in working with cancer patients. We also have a monthly Walk’nTalk groups and a weekly Gardening Group, both of which offer the opportunity for gentle outdoor exercise in the company of others and a relaxed environment to talk.

Our community is not just a resource for people who are living with a cancer diagnosis. Having to watch a loved one suffering can be upsetting and challenging too, and is often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, which can be made worse if the person with cancer is in another country. We have specific support groups for family members and caregivers, including a group aimed specifically at teens with an affected parent. There are also groups which can help with bereavement. Our well-being activities are available to caregivers too. Whatever your situation, we are here to help. 

Can I volunteer to help?

Volunteers can become involved in all aspects of the organization and at all levels: by becoming a Peer Supporter; becoming involved in one of our activities; helping in the Drop-in Centre, library, office, or with communications or fundraising; helping on an information stand when needed; or serving on one of our organizational committees, or the board. Many of our volunteers have experience of dealing with cancer and have themselves received support from Cancer Support Switzerland or similar organizations in the past. Having dealt with cancer directly is not a requirement – anyone who wishes to contribute can join our community: 


You can email us at or call our support line on +41 (0)22 723 2231 and leave a message. A counselor will get back to you to set up an initial conversation to understand your situation and needs.

How much will it cost?
Thanks to the generosity of our donors and members, and to individual and community fundraising efforts, we can offer our services free to anyone who needs them. After accessing our services, we invite anyone who can contribute to donate, in order to pay it forward for the next person who may need similar support.

* Susan Wells is a Geneva-based Writer, and a Cancer Support Switzerland Volunteer.
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