Can You Answer Six Questions On How to Be Compassionate to A Loved One Coping With Cancer?

Stan Goldberg, PhD

Most people want to be compassionate, especially if it involves a loved one or friend coping with cancer.

We would like to think that having a love-filled heart is all that’s necessary to do the “right thing;” to ease our loved one or friend’s journey. I’ve found with my cancer and serving people coping with it, there often is a gap between wanting to be compassionate and knowing how to display it.

When you think about being compassionate to someone living with cancer, what specifically should you do? Unfortunately, many people have only a general notion of what compassionate behavior should be. Usually, it’s thought of in terms such as “being present,” “careful listening,” “acceptance,” “non-judgment,” or “treating the person as I would want to be treated.”

They are all important general concepts; the whats of compassion. But people coping with cancer face a myriad of challenges every day. To them, how compassion is displayed is more important.

Think about the difference between what and how of compassion as similar to the difference between knowing you want to be a great musician and understanding how to become one.

Compassion has two major components: intent and knowledge how to implement it. The compassionate person knows what she wants to do (e.g., provide support, be empathetic, etc.) but unless she is living with an acute life-threatening illness, may not know how to implement her good intensions.

If you know someone living with cancer—and if you don’t, you will—try answering the following six questions specifically.

1) What should you do when we share our diagnosis with you?

2) How should you react to our fluctuating emotions?

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

4) How should you communicate with us?

5) When we experience physical pain, how will you help us?

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

If you’re uncomfortable with your answers, you may be interested in my new ebook “I Have Cancer,” 48 Things to Do When You Hear Those Words.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. Heidi Macalaster

    I think all of these thought provoking questions are a good start toward self-reflection as the evolution and change in your relationship with your friend/loved-one moves forward into the more symptomatic realities ahead. Above all be honest, do not give advice if you have not personally experienced the situation, offer your time. Assuming you know this person well, you will also know their joys in life…when and if the time comes that they can no longer take on those tasks do them for them; such as cooking, cleaning, combing the cat, walking the dog, and weeding the garden. When they hurt, rub their feet, offer cool cloths on their forehead or warm heating pads, play soothing music. Pray with them and love up on them in any possible way…gather memories and find the joy even in the suffering.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Great advice Heidi–I can tell it comes from experience.

      take Care,

  2. Ken

    Perhaps the best or the most important answer to all those questions is: Ask me how I can be of help to you.

    • Stan Goldberg

      I agree. But often there is a reluctance on the part of people living with cancer to ask for help.


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