26 May 2023

While everyone’s relationship and cancer experience is different, all relationships – whether they are romantic, friendly, at work or familial – rely on good communication. Communicating about cancer can be difficult for all involved, so here’s seven things I have learnt about communication and relationships during my cancer experiences.


People show they care in different ways

Think about love – some people show their affection through words, some through gifts, and some through other actions. For example, if you’ve just had surgery, some people might show they love you by trying to encourage you to be more active to improve your recovery – even if that’s not what your body is telling you it needs. These might not be your chosen means of expressing love, but it’s good to recognise them just the same and tell people what we need if we’re not getting it.

People can also surprise you – some you weren’t so close to might be particularly supportive, while some people you expected support from might not show up at all.


People don’t always say the right things… or say anything

There’s a lot of discourse about what to say and what not to say to cancer patients. Toxic positivity and battle language (fighting cancer!) are common offenders, but personally I’d rather someone says something than nothing at all. At least if someone says something unhelpful I can tell them that – there’s not much I can do if they drop out of touch or start ghosting me, which has unfortunately happened. The question then becomes how much energy you want to spend on repairing those relationships.


People generally have good intentions

But good intentions aren’t always enough. If someone gives a cancer patient bad advice, or unhelpful platitudes, we may be told we should make allowances for them because they were well- intended. To me, affording some grace is fine, but only to an extent because it’s a bit like saying your feelings don’t matter because the person tried to do the right thing. Suggesting someone abandons scientific medicine and opts only for alternative treatments may be propelled similarly by good intentions. Being exhorted to “Just stay positive” or “You’re strong, you can beat this” may be said with good intentions, but again, for me it’s not what I want to hear. I’ve heard examples of someone’s  ‘grandmother’s sister’s husband’ having died of that type of cancer, and while again these things might be said with good intentions (an attempt to provide empathy or understanding?) it doesn’t mean they are not harmful to the cancer patient. Yes, these words may be coming from a place of love but good intentions aren’t a get-out clause, and the best communication comes from when we consider the impact of our words, listen to others about that impact, learn from it, and try to do better.


People like to communicate on their own terms

I like to talk about my cancer experiences a lot, but only on my own terms. If I’ve instigated the conversation, I’m happy to do that, but there may be times when I’m not ready to talk about something, or when I’m trying to forget about my worries and don’t want to be reminded of them. For example, if I’m worrying about a follow-up scan and don’t want to think about it, I might get a little snappy if someone asks me questions about it unexpectedly. Of course, nobody can read my mind, so I need to find a calm way of letting people know when I don’t want to talk about something.

However, there will be conversations that I do want to have, such as about the mental health aspects of cancer survivorship, and these are conversations I need to instigate otherwise they won’t happen. That’s the burden of the patient because it can be hard to start these conversations, as much as we might want to. It’s especially hard when we’re out of treatment and people assume we’re fine and have gone back to normal. Maybe we haven’t, and maybe there are things we need to talk about but don’t know how to bring them up. It really helps if people continue to check in even after cancer.


It’s important to choose who you open up to

On that note, not everyone is going to be receptive to hearing about cancer. This might be because they’ve had their own experiences and aren’t in the right frame of mind to help with yours, or because they aren’t very close to you, or they feel uncomfortable for other reasons. It can hurt to open up to someone only to be rejected or dismissed, and sometimes it’s difficult to know when that’s going to happen. All we can do is use our best judgement and fall back on our trusted support circles, if we are lucky enough to have them, when we need to.


Often it’s easier to talk about how I was feeling than how I am feeling

It can be hard to talk about emotions in the moment. When the feeling has passed or is less intense, it can then be easier for people to talk about what happened and their emotions with a little more distance and perspective. This can help if communication has been difficult due to feelings of stress and anger. Oftentimes it’s best to wait until someone is ready to talk rather than trying to force them to in the moment.


‘Ring theory’ is useful for a variety of situations

Ring theory is a concept that can help you support people involved in a crisis by choosing how to deal with your own stress. Visualise a series of concentric rings, with the person being directly affected by a problem or event – in this case, cancer – in the middle ring. The second ring will be their partner or another person closest to them. The next ring may be parents or siblings, the next other family, then close friends, then acquaintances, and so on. The idea is to “comfort in” and “dump out”. For example, if you are a partner, your comfort would be directed towards the person with cancer, and you can “dump out” your stress towards the outer rings, such as other less close family members – rather than onto the person in the middle. Similarly, those in the outer rings shouldn’t be “dumping” (venting, discussing stress or worries) on the partner or person affected, because this isn’t helpful and these people already have bigger problems. There is more information on ring theory here, and it can be applied to all sorts of situations, not just cancer. It’s a great way of remembering how you can be helpful and supportive, whatever your role may be.