Cancer Compassion: 6 Questions to Answer If You Want To Be Helpful To Family and Friends

Cancer Compassion - If You Want To Be Helpful To Family and FriendsBy: Stan Goldberg, Ph.D, Author of Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life.

Supporting cancer victims affects us all. At least once in your life someone will say to you, I have cancer, and when those three words are spoken, you may struggle to respond in a compassionate and helpful way. The compassion part may be easy in supporting cancer victims. In the misery of another, we see ourselves; if not in the present, than in our past or future. But does having compassion automatically result in  skillful behaviors when supporting cancer victims? I’ve wrestled with this question as someone living with cancer survivor for twelve years and for twenty-five years as a counselor of people coping with chronic illnesses. My conclusion is compassion isn’t enough.

The What and How of Compassion

His Holiness, The Dali Lama, wrote “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” Thich Nhat Hanh, said, “Compassion means, literally, ‘to suffer with.’” For me, compassion is a what of Buddhist tradition. It says this is what we should be doing in supporting cancer victims, but not necessarily how to do it other than in general terms (e.g., acceptance, nonjudgmental, etc.).

supporting cancer victims The problem for many—including myself—is how to practice compassion in a way that is helpful to others. For example, is it compassionate to give a strung-out street person money knowing he will use it to buy drugs? Is it compassionate to tell your frightened mother who has terminal cancer she will survive? Some authors maintain answers to questions such as these come through meditation when we put ourselves in the place of others who are in great torment.

For me, meditation provides more whats than hows about supporting cancer victims, but rarely do hypotheticals translate into accurate understanding.

When Compassion Requires Facts: Supporting Cancer Victims

Driving from New York City to San Francisco is analogous to wanting to be compassionate in supporting cancer victims. The intents are clear; to arrive in San Francisco and to help a friend cope. You may be uncertain of the routes to take for the drive, so you go to a local travel office and ask, “How to I get to San Francisco?” A clerk points west and says “That way.” The directions are correct, but not specific enough to be helpful. I believe a similar problem exists in wanting supporting cancer victims and knowing how to implement it.

Supporting cancer victimsThe difference between intent and practice was made clear to me by a hospice patient who described the difficulty her brother had when she informed him of her cervical cancer prognosis.They were close throughout their lives, and she regarded him as compassionate. He stumbled when faced with transforming compassion into practical behaviors. He understood his sister’s condition would deteriorate. She would soon need help in daily activities, such as food preparation and personal hygiene. His dilemma was in not knowing how to approach these issues with her. Should he assume she needed help, or should he wait until asked?

The gap between compassionate intent and support was not limited to her physical needs. He struggled with knowing when the time was right to discuss how he felt about her. What should he say that would ease her journey? Should he raise the possibility she might not survive or pretend everything would be fine? He assumed compassion would be easy to actualize. But it wasn’t. It involved a series of choices about how to be compassionate.

You may believe supporting cancer victims only requires responses based on concepts such as “active listening,” “acceptance,” “openness,” “honesty,” and “being present.” According to people living with and dying from cancer, what they crave is specificity, not just generalities. There is immense gratitude for the compassion shown to us, but we need more.

Our Invitation and Your Responsibility

Think of “compassion” as what separates you from other people we encounter. You’re the type of person we want in our lives—and for some, our deaths. We are inviting you into a world that’s constantly changing, chaotic, and quite often frightening. We’ll ask you to transform intentions into actions if you accept our invitation. Below are six of the many areas in which your loved one or friend may ask for help. How would you respond without referring to the above general concepts? In other words, what would you do?

1) What will you do when I share my diagnosis with you?

2) How will you react to my fluctuating emotions?

3) What can you do to compensate for my accumulated losses?

4) What will you communicate to me and how will you do it?

5) When I experience emotional or physical pain, how will you help me?

6) What will you do if my prognosis is terminal?

Coping with cancer is a complex and messy journey for those of us experiencing it and friends and loved ones accompanying us. Supporting cancer victims requires both compassionate intent and practical knowledge merged as skillful, useful actions. Real compassion requires doing, not just feeling. If you couldn’t answer just one of the six questions, you might be interested in “I Have Cancer” 48 Things To Do When You Hear Those Words, available now on Amazon as a $3.49 ebook.

Stan Goldberg, Ph.DAbout Stan Goldberg, Ph.D: Stan is a cancer survivor,  husband, father, Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University, and devotee of the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and Native American Flute. For eight years Stan was a bedside hospice volunteer at Pathways, Hospice By The Bay, George Mark Children’s Hospice, and Zen Hospice Project.   In 2009 Stan was named by the Hospice Volunteer Association “Volunteer of the Year.”

For more than 25 years  Stan Goldberg has taught, provided therapy, researched, and published in the areas of learning, change, loss, and end of life issues.

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UNITY WITHIN: How To Build An Inner Safe Place

Dr. Robin B. Dilley, author of In A Moment’s Notice: A Psychologist’s Journey with Breast Cancer and a licensed psychologist.

Unity is a word that is often associated with being together on the same page. However, as cancer survivors, the word “Unity” takes on a multitude of definitions. It is difficult to feel unified within when medical appointments steal precious hours from your days and emotions run the scale of numb to terrorized. Unity is something that must be worked on, developing it from within your being. It is important to discover tools that will help you with body, soul, and spirit. It is important to breath and connect to a quiet spot within.

As a psychologist, I often ask clients to build an inner safe place. This is a place that he/she imagines and creates with all of the necessary imagery, sounds, smells, colors, and ambiance for emotional safety. It is the first tool for developing unity within. Let me help you try it.

Allow yourself to take ten minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the day and sit quietly. You might want your journal and perhaps even crayons. Where is your favorite place to feel connected, happy, hopeful, and nurtured? This place does not have to really exist. You can imagine it.

For example, imagine that there is a place up in the sky that is surrounded by your favorite colors. There is a door with your name on it and you enter it to discover a room with a view of your favorite place (mountains, beach, meadow, park). The room is comfy with a big overstuffed chair, a cup of tea awaits you and the smell of sweet hibiscus fills the room. A candle is present if you choose to light it and as you look around, the room has everything that you can possibly need. As soon as you think of something that you need it appears. Take some time to write down what you see.

It is important to know that you do not have to re-create this same place each time you come here but this is a starter safe-place and it will change as you need it to change and as you change.

This room is very important because it is a safe and sacred place for you to come. It will allow you to get in touch with difficult emotions and explore the many choice points of your treatment. You can write anything in you journal in this room and will feel safe while you do it. Big cumbersome feelings will not overwhelm you in this room. It feels safe to cry here. It feels safe to be angry here. It feels safe to just sit and stare out of your window with a view. You do not have to do anything in this room. The room welcomes you just as you are. This room has enough mystery to it to help you re-connect to your body, soul and spirit.

Next ask yourself where you hurt or are uncomfortable. Send warm breath toward your uncomfortable body. Breath is your second most valuable tool for Unity within. Sit and breathe. Breathe gently in, as if you are going to fill yourself with nurturing oxygen, letting it swirl around in your nostrils and move into your lungs. Exhale slowly as if you are blowing out a candle. Or count as you breath in and out and continue to do so until you actually feel your body relax from inside out.

In your quiet safe place, relaxed by your breath you will be open to hear the wisdom within, that intuitive place that can help you make important decisions about what action steps you need to take. It is this place that you can be with your terror and not crawl out of your skin. It is in this place you can ask for wisdom and hear that quiet still small voice within. It is here that you can stretch your emotions as well as your body inviting the flexibility of life to help you stay open to change and options. As much as the body needs yoga, the mind and the spirit need emotional yoga. Emotional yoga is like learning to sit with your terror until it begins to transform into something different. Sitting is the key to Unity within.

Give it a try. Allow the possible frustration with learning to be with yourself to float away. Now more than ever you need to tools to be in touch with yourself. Enjoy your new safe place.

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Dr. Robin DilleyDr. Robin B. Dilley, author of In A Moment’s Notice: A Psychologist’s Journey with Breast Cancer is a licensed psychologist in the State of Arizona. Her eclectic practice allows her to cross diagnostic barriers and meet clients in their need assisting them to respond to life in healthy and empowering ways rather than react to life’s circumstances.

Thanksgiving: An Opportunity To Take Inventory Of Our Lives Blessings

Give Thanks For Our Lives BlessingsThanksgiving provides each of us an opportunity to take inventory of our lives and truly list our blessings. Thanksgiving has a way of opening the door of our hearts and souls to others, allowing the spirit of generosity to permeate to each other.

But the happy face of Thanksgiving does not always fit. For breast cancer and other cancer survivors this time can be bitter sweet, especially if you are currently in treatment or wrestling with bad news on how your treatment is going. If you are having a difficult time emotionally or physically then this holiday can present some challenges. Rather that asking you to hide those challenges and pretend that you are just thankful to be alive, I am giving you permission to be honest with yourself and others. There is a trick to this honesty because as you probably know by now, honesty is not always well received by the general population. Most people just do not know what to say when you say you are in treatment for cancer. It is not that they are selfish, inept, or rude. They just don’t know what to say. As a result they end up saying something like, “hope you feel better soon.”

Here is my Thanksgiving advice for you:
The bottom line no one knows if he/she will be alive this time next year. Now, by telling you that truth, I have just leveled the playing field. You are really no different than your neighbor who seems to be happy-go-lucky Mr. Good Guy. The difference is that you are aware you are now mortal. That reality allows you to make a difference this Thanksgiving in ways other people can’t.

Here are some things to do as a result:

  1. Make a list of your friends, family and acquaintances. Be mindful as you do this by getting out a large notepad or even beautiful stationary. Spend time listing these people.
  2. Next, ask yourself, “Who would be my best ally or friend on this list if I allowed myself to be vulnerable with him/her?” Imagine yourself calling that person and asking them to come visit with you for a little bit. If they live far away ask for a time when you can have a brief but meaningful conversation with them on the phone. I know your anxiety is rising because I am asking you to do something for yourself. Take a breath and relax a bit because I am going to ask you to do something for all of those other people on your list in a minute. However, you must learn how to take care of your difficult emotions first.

Here is a brief script you can practice saying to the one person that you chose to be your friend on the list:

Susie (the name of your person) I am reaching out to you today because I trust you and believe I can be honest with you. You have shown me over our time together that you are genuinely interested in how I am doing. To be truthful with you, I have never really known how to answer that question. But today, I just need you to know that I am having a difficult time right now. This Thanksgiving is feeling overwhelming and I am sad. I hurt and my treatment is not going very easy right now. Because, I know you have cared about that in the past, I am letting you know that now in the most honest way I can. It feels better just to say the truth to someone. I know there is nothing you can do Susie to change anything I am going through. I just needed to get it off of my chest. Thanks so much for listening to me.”

See, that wasn’t so bad was it? That was an exercise in reaching out to get your needs met and allowing a friend to be there to listen. In most cases sharing with a friend at this level of honesty will help you feel a little better.

Now, look at that list of people. What do you know about each of them? Ask yourself, “What would I say or do for them if they were in a difficult spot this Thanksgiving?” Asking yourself that question will help you get out of your box and into his/her box, making you aware if it is not cancer, it is usually something.

Depending on your energy level, here are a few suggestions of some action you can take:

  1. If you a person of prayer, you can offer a prayer for each of them.
  2. If you have the energy and the contact information you can call them and tell them, “Happy Thanksgiving. I am just thinking about you. Hope you have a wonderful day.”
  3. You can send a note or you can just keep the list handy and look at it often to remind yourself that we really all are in this together, one way or the other.

The last suggestion for this Thanksgiving is for you to do something this day to distract yourself from you. Don’t allow yourself to dwell on your fear. Any activity out of the ordinary will help you get your mind off of yourself and be thankful that even though you have cancer you still can do some activities and be valuable to others along the way. Be thankful for that and enjoy what you can. Let go of the rest.

Dr. Robin Dilley

Dr. Robin B. Dilley, author of In A Moment’s Notice: A Psychologist’s Journey with Breast Cancer is a licensed psychologist in the State of Arizona. Her eclectic practice allows her to cross diagnostic barriers and meet clients in their need assisting them to respond to life in healthy and empowering ways rather than react to life’s circumstances.


Coping With Breast Cancer

Breast Cancer Recovery RiverBy: Dr. Robin Dilley, Licensed Psychologist

The last blog spoke about the messenger who falls asleep by the river.  I broke it down to five parts and of course I could not really do any part of it justice in the appropriate guidelines for a blog.  So here is a list of the five parts (each part an intricate part of our journey with Breast Cancer).
The significance of the river

  • The Messenger who falls asleep
  • The Strange Character that switches the message
  • The King’s unconditional love
  • The King’s Mother’s Wisdom

I touched on each of these briefly.  For the next five installments, I am going to hang out here for a while because each piece seems to have great significance to our breast cancer story.  This is Breast Cancer awareness month and the heart of our journey seems to rest in this section of the Miller’s Daughter.

The messenger falls asleep by the river.  The messenger could fall asleep anywhere, but here is carrying the grand news of the birth of the King’s first born son and he falls asleep by the river.  River’s and water often to have spiritual significance.  Last time I mentioned Moses’ in the basket down the river to the Princess and baptism.  There are many other powerful river (water) stories.  A river is like a metaphor of our life.

  • When you are the bend in the river you cannot see what is around the bend until you get past it, and then you can be pleasantly surprised or startled into fear depending on what you see.
  • A river is often beautiful flowing evenly, singing a gentle but invigorating song from the depths of its dance.
  • A river is often a mirror of our emotions.  If things are going well the river is serene, enjoyable, and inviting.

However, if a hard rain has fallen the river is muddy, swirling in anger, and foreboding.
Coping with breast cancer is like coping with a might river inside of us.  The emotional storm rocks the shores of our core-self breaking over the safe boundaries and invading our very sacred inner spaces.  The river floods our psyche and leaves debris behind for us to clean up.  In its murky and muddy waters the fears, anger, sadness and disbelief dwell.
It is in the depth of these murky waters that the messages in our brains get garbled and unruly.  What once felt like a child now feels like a freak, half dog-half human.  It is terrifying at the bottom of this murky river.  Will the storm pass and peaceful waters flow again?
One way that you can use this blog entry to help you move through those murky emotions that you may be experiencing is to journal about them, attend gently and compassionately with each emotion as if it is a precious member of your inner garden.  Of course, you are angry, afraid, overwhelmed and sad (some of the time).  The goal is to acknowledge each feeling, breath into it deeply and let it go.  Do this as often and as long as it takes for your mood to begin to clear the muddy waters.  And like the messenger, get up and move on with journey.  The message changes with our individual emotional storms let it flow and take good care.

Dr. Robin B. Dilley, author of In A Moment’s Notice: A Psychologist’s Journey with Breast Cancer is a licensed psychologist in the State of Arizona. Her eclectic practice allows her to cross diagnostic barriers and meet clients in their need assisting them to respond to life in healthy and empowering ways rather than react to life’s circumstances.

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