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No One Understands

A Guide to Receiving the Understanding You Deserve

by Nancy L. Agneberg

Wellness image

When you share your feelings, you encourage others to explore theirs.

“No one understands,” said the two-year breast cancer survivor. “Only people with cancer can understand.” The others in the support group, all veterans of cancer campaigns, nodded in agreement. No one challenged her. No one disagreed or attempted to disprove what she said. Apparently, she had stated a truth: Those who have not been diagnosed with cancer do not understand. “I know my family and friends were worried and afraid,” she continued, “but I felt alone. I still do. I wish they understood how I feel, how having cancer feels.”

Does this sound familiar? Has this been your experience? Does empathy or the ability and willingness to identify with another’s feelings seem to be missing? Perhaps your loved ones need some compassionate guidance.

step one: Examine Your Ability to Empathize
How did you respond when a friend suffered a miscarriage or the loss of a parent or sibling? How have you supported a loved one experiencing change, such as a move to another city or the stress of a spouse or child serving in Afghanistan? Did your heart open to their pain? Have you been able to put yourself in someone else’s situation?

If you have ever felt alone, afraid, invisible, unsure, or grief-stricken, you understand someone else’s pain. You don’t need to experience the death of a child to imagine the grief. You don’t need to experience unemployment or estrangement, or even an empty nest to feel unbalanced and uncertain. Our hearts remember those emotions. We know at some basic human level what it means to be in those difficult, life-altering situations, and we can empathize.

Your loved ones are not mind readers. Instead of expecting them to know what you need, be forthcoming.

Author of Article photo

Nancy Agneberg

step two: Know and Share Your Feelings
How well do you understand yourself and what you are feeling? Have you named what you are feeling? How open are you with your loved ones? What do you want them to understand? When someone asks how you are, do you reply, “I’m fine”? When you are reluctant to be honest or when you seem out of touch with yourself, you discourage empathy from those who care.

Take time to clarify what you are feeling. Write in a journal. Pray. Sit in silence and listen to your heart. Meet with a counselor. Join a support group. Write a letter to the cancer. Identify your own feelings.

step three: Encourage Empathy
When you share your feelings, you encourage others to explore theirs. For example, you might say, “I am afraid. Having cancer really scares me, and I am struggling to make sense of it all. How are you? You must be scared, too.”

When you offer compassion, you stretch beyond your own suffering. You are able to see and hear the pain of your loved ones, the ones who don’t seem to understand. Yes, of course, this is a lot to do at a time when you are not strong, when you are struggling with pain or exhaustion, and when normalcy in your life seems impossible. However, when you express empathy, you become a model of understanding and compassion. Others will learn empathy from you.

step four: State What You Need
Now is not the time to be shy. When you are asked, “How can I help?” say, “Thanks for asking,” and then tell them what you need. If the laundry hamper is full, direct them to the washing machine. If you need a child picked up from school, say so. Would you appreciate a companion during chemotherapy? Do you need a cancer-free day, a day without cancer talk? Do you need your loved ones to understand that you are still you? Tell them. Start the conversation.

More than likely, your loved ones are not mind readers. Instead of expecting them to know intuitively what you need, be clear and forthcoming. You might be surprised by their eager responses. In fact, they may suggest other ways to help, and as they help, they will gain understanding of what you are experiencing and feeling. It’s a win-win situation. You can also be clear about what you don’t need, including details about someone else’s cancer or other problems.

Yes, the cancer experience often is devastating, overwhelming, and confusing. But it can also offer opportunities for empathy and compassion, especially when you clarify your own feelings, are open to others’ feelings, and state clearly what you need and expect. May you be understanding, and may you be understood.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Nancy Agneberg is a spiritual director retired from private practice, a writer, and a cancer survivor who lives in Madison, WI, with her hospice physician husband. She writes the blog The Sacred Sixties at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2010.