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Express Yourself

Tools for Communicating Your Needs and Emotions after a Cancer Diagnosis

by Julie Larson, LCSW

Author of Article photo

A cancer diagnosis can change how you seek support from others. You may look to close friends for lighthearted distraction, or unwavering reassurance, in stressful moments. Supportive family members can be integral in helping you make difficult decisions. And sympathetic colleagues can make profound differ­ences in your transition back to work. However, all too often, relationships become complicated and fraught with hurtful misunderstanding when some­one is diagnosed with cancer. You may find it difficult to communicate your needs and feelings with family and friends. And they may not always know what to say to you in return.

Learning how to express yourself clearly and thoughtfully can help you feel connected, in control, and support­ed throughout your cancer experience. To get better at communicating your needs, and your feelings, start by an­swering these questions:

Do you understand yourself? Before you can begin to communicate your needs and emotions to others, you must first work to identify and understand them yourself. What do you need peo­ple to understand about your situation? What is the most pressing concern for you today? Do you feel misunderstood? Do you need someone to help you with a task, offer advice, or simply listen to what you have to say?

The answers to these questions can help you better understand yourself and your needs. And understanding yourself is an excellent starting block for com­municating your needs with others. Still, if you’re caught off guard when someone reaches out to you, it’s OK to respond by saying, “I don’t know what I need right now” or “I’m still working to un­derstand everything, and it’s best if I don’t get ahead of myself.”

Understanding yourself is an excellent starting block for communicating your needs with others.

Do you know who to turn to? There are times when your thoughts and feelings are harder to articulate, or feel overwhelming. Talking through these more intense times with trusted friends or confidants can help reduce feelings of isolation and can be a good way to care for yourself.

But before you rush to pick up the phone and call out for support, take a moment to consider the different peo­ple available to you. Who do you trust to listen well and consistently respond in meaningful ways? Have you noticed how some people seem uncomfortable with emotions but quickly jump to problem solve? Still others may have previously left you feeling upset or dis­appointed with their responses. Being mindful of who you reach out to and why increases the likelihood of your needs being met and protects you from getting hurt along the way.

What are your red-hot triggers? It can happen to the best of us – a per­fectly calm conversation suddenly feels awkward, or worse, you feel the red-hot simmer of rage or the fragility of vulner­ability rising just below the surface. Do you know what topics, comments, or people have an intense effect on you? Is it a reference to faith? An unsolicited token of advice about how best to sup­port your children? A commentary on what you should eat, do at the gym, or mediate on? Maybe it’s when questions about your treatment protocol feel judg­mental, or an inquiry on how you are coping is poorly timed?

When you begin to identify the types of conversation that feel particularly sensitive, you can craft simple responses and become skilled at side-stepping these conversation triggers. By prepar­ing yourself for these triggers, you can more easily regain control of the con­versation should they arise.

Communication Is an Ongoing Process
The time spent at doctors’ visits, in work meetings, or having important conversations with loved ones can feel intense and critical. Preparing for im­portant conversations can help you feel more confident. Remember, you can pace these interactions in a way that feels comfortable to you. Allow your­self time to listen and to be heard.

Communication is an integral part of the cancer experience. From the vital conversations you have with your med­ical team regarding treatment planning to the intimate expressions of emotion and hope you share with loved ones, these moments help shape your cancer experience. Learning how to communi­cate your needs and emotions takes time. But each conversation you have gives you vital feedback to help you improve your communication skills for future conversations.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Julie Larson is a psychotherapist in New York, NY. In her practice, she works pri­marily with people under the age of 40 on issues surrounding wellness, loss, and life transitions. She speaks often to both survivor and professional audiences on the impact of a serious illness at a young age.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2017.