Express Yourself

Express Yourself Julie Larson

Tools for Communicating Your Needs and Emotions after a Cancer Diagnosis

by Julie Larson, LCSW

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? Thinking through the answers to these questions can be a good place to begin. 

In addition, acknowledging your feelings also helps you feel calmer and act smarter as you work to communicate with others. Cultivating a habit of checking in with yourself helps you to slow down and respond – not react – to the situation more mindfully. Worry and uncertainty, driven by unanswered questions, can inform your next medical visit. Anger and frustration can empower you to thoughtfully stand up for yourself in hard conversations. Gratitude can help you feel more centered. 

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.” 

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. 

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

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? 

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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 (JulieLarsonLCSW.com), 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, November/December 2020.

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