Compassion and Cancer: Part III-Putting “Meat” on Compassionate Behaviors

Stan Goldberg, PhD

We want to be helpful to whose living with cancer, but often we don’t know how to transform compassionate intent into helpful behaviors. I discussed why compassion isn’t sufficient to be helpful in Part I. In Part II I maintained our lives and identity changes after receiving a cancer diagnosis. In this final segment, I’ll offer suggestions for putting “meat” on the bones of compassion—converting compassion into helpful behaviors. A more detailed examination of the issues in this three-part series appears in my eBook “I Have Cancer” 48 Things to Do When You Hear the Words.

When You Hear The Words

The decision to reveal the diagnosis is complicated; tapping into a history of beliefs, values, and experiences. Buried deep beneath the decision whether or not to reveal the condition are elements as complicated and intertwined as ingredients of a great New Orleans gumbo. When you hear, “I Have Cancer,” be supportive with specific offers to help, balance hope with reality, refrain from telling us we’re the same person we were before the diagnosis, and don’t treat us as heroes.

 Our Emotions

Living with cancer is like riding an endless roller-coaster with immense drops, twists, and turns spaced so it’s a constant mixture of joy and terror. Before labeling our behaviors as “strange, “inappropriate,” or “bizarre,” understand that many of them are generated from the disruption in our lives, not anything you did. Instead of being judgmental, try to understand how our words and behaviors are related to the illness.

Accumulated Losses

Cancer is tied to losses, and as losses accumulate identities change. For me, it was being unable to flyfish alone in the wilderness because my treatment made it dangerous. Don’t try to mitigate losses by telling us how much we still can do. Instead, help us search for the emotion no longer present (e.g., serenity for me) because of the loss, and work with us to find another activity that can regenerate it.

Compassionate Communications

Most people believe they are great communicators, listeners, or both. It’s natural to lay the blame on someone else when communication problems arise. Years of research on how people communicate and listen led me to conclude we rarely view the world objectively. What we see, hear, and communicate is often determined by our needs, beliefs, and history. When conversing with a friend or loved one living with cancer, don’t have successive monologs. Listen carefully, and keep your comments directly related to what she just said.


The control of pain is variable. One day medication is a blessing; the next it’s inconsequential, and the pain hits with the power of a sledgehammer. Although there’s jubilation on good days, there’s also fear the reprieve will end. On bad days, there’s fear it will persist and never relent. A life with pain is common for many people living with and being treated for cancer. Never tell someone who lives with pain they are exaggerating. The anticipation of pain is often more debilitating than the pain itself.

Accepting a Terminal Condition

Death is a part of life, directing attitudes and behaviors as if it is the Great Oz behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. As minds and bodies change with the growth of cancer, death is no longer something on the distant horizon, but rather an approaching appointment. The realization changes attitudes and behaviors. Feel honored if your friend chooses you to accompany her on the journey. Be supportive even on decisions with which you disagree. Literarily and figuratively hold her hand knowing there’s nothing you can do to alter the outcome, but you can smooth out some of the road bumps. Be prepared to have your life changed in ways you can’t anticipate.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.


  1. Cheryl McLaughlin

    Hi Stan,
    I am SO glad you are writing about this and “how” you are writing about it. It’s so true, that it’s not easy to know how to be the most helpful, or how to be truly present and listening with an open heart.

    • Stan Goldberg

      Thanks Cheryl,
      Always good to hear from you.

      Take Care,



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