Let’s Talk about It
by Julie Larson, LCSW
A cancer diagnosis can impose a great deal of uncertainty into your life. As you struggle to make sense of your experience, you may find it difficult to decipher your needs and feelings, let alone communicate them to the people in your life who want to help. Facing your first day back to work, a large family gathering, or even a casual night out with friends can be daunting when you’re not sure how to approach conversations about your cancer. Learning a few simple strategies for better communication can help keep you from feeling misunderstood, isolated, and overwhelmed.
Identify your needs and feelings.
Before you can begin to communicate your needs and feelings to others, you must first identify them for yourself. What do you need people to understand about your situation? What has helped you during difficult situations in the past? 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 might help tailor your response when people ask what they can do to help you. If you’re still not sure, it’s OK to say, “I don’t even 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.”
Let your loved ones know if you want to talk about your feelings or if you prefer to be more private.
Know your audience.
Once you’ve identified your needs, you can begin to pinpoint the people in your life who can help meet those needs. While some people consistently know the right things to say, others are more likely to pitch in and help in practical ways. So for example, you might approach the former when you’re feeling overwhelmed and need someone to offer advice to help calm you down, and the latter when you’re feeling fatigued and need someone to help you with household chores.
Help others help you.
Don’t feel shy about teaching people how to talk to you or letting them know where you want a conversation to go. In fact, your loved ones are often seeking this type of guidance. Let them know if you want to talk about your feelings or if you prefer to be more private. If you don’t feel like talking about cancer, tell them, “I just need to distract myself and focus on other things today.” On the other hand, if you need a little extra support, you might say, “My thoughts keep coming back to the possibility of recurrence. Normally I feel more in control, but today I am more sensitive.”
Rehearse a “back pocket” response.
When you’re caught off guard with unexpected questions, inappropriate statements, or the unsolicited opinions of others, you might find yourself feeling flustered and babbling as you work to procure a response. Having a few simple, straightforward responses prepared, rehearsed, and “in your back pocket” can help you feel more in control and confident when an unexpected comment pops up. You might say, “Thanks for checking in. I’m taking things one day at a time and finding what works best for me,” “I’ve had ups and downs, but I have a great medical team, and my family has been a wonderful support,” or even “I appreciate your concern, but let’s talk about something else today. I can’t focus on cancer all the time. How are you?” These responses can shift the focus of the conversation, correct a person’s assumptions about what you’re going through, and perhaps even calm their worries about your situation.
Remember that communication encompasses more than words.
Body language is a powerful tool that allows us to communicate without using any words at all. A simple touch or a glance across a dinner table can speak for you when words are hard to find. You can also use body language to appear more confident; for example, by sitting up straight and maintaining eye contact with the person you’re talking to. This can be helpful when you need to assert yourself despite underlying feelings of uncertainty. Moreover, when you appear more confident, you may even end up feeling more confident too. 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 feelings takes time. But each conversation you have provides vital feedback to help you improve your communication skills for future conversations.
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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 2014.