How to Express Empathy After a Loved One Has Received a Cancer Diagnosis

Apple a Day Blog | April 14, 2017
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If your loved one or friend has been diagnosed with cancer, it’s important to try to genuinely understand their feelings even while processing your own. 

Often mistaken for sympathy, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person because you have experienced something similar and are able to recall your feelings as you remember your own experiences.  Sympathy is understanding what someone may be going through without having previously experienced a similar situation.

Cheryl Beatrice, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California, with a background in grief, loss, and forgiveness, talks about the importance of accessing empathy after a cancer diagnosis as a means of helping your loved one or friend throughout their journey.

“Whenever something of significance happens, whether to ourselves or to someone else, the event is like throwing a stone in the pond; there is a ripple effect of things that happen after. When you’re talking about cancer, it’s not just the cancer patient who is affected, everyone in the family is impacted, as are close friends as well as work relationships,” Beatrice says. “The difference is that everyone will be affected by the diagnosis in a different way.  The closer you are to the event, the bigger the ripples you will feel.”

Turning empathy into action for your loved one or friend diagnosed with cancer can help them along their road to recovery.

“We often tend to tip toe around the big things because we don’t want to be the cause of our loved ones feeling sad. Or we don’t know what to say because of our own level of discomfort and feel avoiding the topic is best,” says Beatrice. “If you don’t know what to say, try saying something like ‘I can’t imagine what you’re going through or I don’t know what to say.’ Being authentic and acknowledging that you don’t have the answers can open the door for your friend or loved one to share their experience more fully with you. Acknowledging your loved one and asking if there’s anything you can do helps.”

Beatrice continues, “one of the things that gets lost in the shuffle is exactly how much organization and planning goes into cancer treatment. Friends may have little understanding for the number of appointments required during the treatment process. Having somebody say, ‘don’t worry about your daughter, I’ll pick her up from school’, or finding other ways to be supportive through actions can be the best way of expressing empathy and showing support.  Ask yourself, ‘what would I need help with if the situation were reversed.’ That can be an excellent starting point for understanding where you can help.”

It’s important to remember that unless you’ve gone through a cancer diagnosis yourself, you can’t really know what it's like. 

“There’s an expression that we’ve all heard that goes something like this: ‘You cannot understand what someone has gone through (or is going through) until you have walked a mile in their shoes.’  But we can try to imagine. This is really what it means to be empathetic.  Be careful to avoid creating situations where your loved one may feel obligated to manage your feelings at the expense of expressing theirs. Try to be present to what they’re feeling or experiencing. Ask them if it’s ok to talk about what they’re going through. If your loved one wants to talk about it, they will. But don’t feel hurt or offended if they don’t want to.” says Beatrice. “Give them enough space to figure out what they are feeling or what they may need help with, and be close enough or available enough to offer a hand, or lend an ear.”

At 21st Century Oncology, we understand how important you are to the treatment experience of your friend or loved one. We will be writing a short series of blog articles to help you show support for a friend or loved one diagnosed with cancer.  Check back here for more information. 


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