Supporting Someone with Cancer While Putting your own Mental Health First

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I’ve been loving seeing all of the honest conversations about mental health happening all around the internet this month! I’ve seen so many frank conversations about how cancer has changed patients’ mental health (for worse and for better!), and it’s helped me so much in feeling less alone as I share so many of those mental health experiences. One thing that I wish was talked about more, though, is mental health as a supporter of someone with cancer. Taking care of your own mental health should always be a top priority. You can’t pour from an empty cup, right? I wanted to share some ideas for how to put yourself first. 

Schedule in some “me time”

Think about what really helps you recharge. Is it a walk around the neighborhood? A good sweat session at the gym? A relaxing bath? Maybe it’s just laying in your bed doing nothing. Whatever it is, schedule it in. Physically put it on your calendar to ensure that you don’t blow it off – it can be so easy to treat things like this as a “nice to have” if you have the time, but recharging your batteries is incredibly necessary. By scheduling in time for yourself, you ensure that you prioritize it as important as it actually is. 

Talk to Friends

There are probably things that your friend with cancer will say to you that can make you anxious and stressed. Cancer is really anxiety-inducing, as is watching someone you love go through it. As I talked about in my Ring Theory blog, you obviously can’t talk to the patient or their close family about the anxiety you feel, but I bet that there are others in your life (or even in their life!) who share those same struggles and would love to talk about it with someone who gets it. Talk to friends who are farther removed from the patient than you are, and you may be surprised by what a load this takes off of your shoulders!


This one goes along with the last one, and it probably seems obvious, but this is often the first thing to go when life gets busy. It gets seen as a luxury so often, but sometimes you need a non-judgmental person to talk to about all of this! Being a supporter of a cancer patient is HARD, and often there are thoughts you have about cancer or being a supporter that many would think you were a monster for saying. Honestly, we’ve ALL had those thoughts, and they’re 100% valid in the right setting. Talking through them with a therapist can be so helpful to clear your head and help you work through the trauma of your friend or family member having cancer.

Mindfulness or Meditation

I know that this one isn’t for everyone, but hear me out here. I was a skeptic too, but my work recently gifted all of us a year subscription to the Calm app, and I decided to give it a try. Things like a quick body scan or breathing exercises were such a great way for me to get a very quick moment of calm and me time when I have a few free minutes in my day. I’ve found that since starting to use the app and make it a point to be more mindful in my everyday life, my anxiety has gotten so much better, and I feel overall calmer. 

All of these are mere suggestions, and the most important thing is that you prioritize your own mental health in whatever way works for you. It may feel like you’re taking time away from the patient you support by focusing on yourself, but I promise you, we understand, and we want you to be able to keep living your life and taking care of yourself. We understand that cancer affects not just us but everyone around us, and we want everyone to care for their own mental health. So let go of the guilt (easier said than done, I know), and start taking some time to take care of yourself. I promise you and the person you’re supporting will feel better if you do. 

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Sympathy vs. Empathy vs. Compassion: Cancer Support and Where Each Fits

Sympathy, empathy and compassion are likely all words you’ve heard used a lot within the cancer space. They might even be used interchangeably! But the truth is, they’re all different, and they each have their own unique role when supporting the cancer patient in your life. 


Sympathy is defined as pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Sympathy was likely one of the first things you felt when your friend or loved one told you they had cancer, but when it comes to expressing sympathy to the person you’re supporting, it can be complex. The last thing we as cancer patients and survivors want to hear is pity; it feels patronizing and will most likely make them feel worse. While sympathy is not something to be ashamed of feeling, it is an emotion that is best kept to yourself, or at least not shared with the person for whom you feel sympathy. Instead, channel those feelings of sorrow or pity into something more productive like empathy, compassion, and support. 


Empathy is defined as being able to understand and share the feelings of someone else. Where sympathy is seeing your loved one with cancer’s experience from your own perspective, empathy takes it a step further to see their experience by putting yourself in their shoes. When your friend is going through something as serious and scary as cancer, your first reaction may be to relate their current experience to something you’ve gone through in order to relate to their feelings.

If you have never experienced cancer yourself, though, there’s no way you can truly understand what they’re going through. What you can do, though, is listen to what they are telling you and really take it to heart, rather than trying to assume things about what they feel. When supporting the cancer patient in your life, it’s important to show empathy by listening to how they feel rather than assuming how they feel. 


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Compassion takes both empathy and sympathy and takes them a step forward; compassion is the understanding that someone is going through something incredibly difficult and then actively trying to alleviate the struggle they are going through. While sympathy and empathy both have distinct roles within the cancer support experience in their own right, we should all strive to be compassionate in every aspect of our support for our loved ones. There really is no such thing as good support without compassion. 

So what does sympathy, empathy, and compassion look like in practice?

Let’s say your friend had a PET scan a few days ago and they call you to let you know their results weren’t good and the cancer is growing.

The sympathetic response would be to shift your tone and body language to sadness, as that’s what her words make you feel, and tell them that you’re sorry for their PET scan results.

The empathetic response would be to shift your tone and body language to match their mood as you think about what they’re telling you about their feelings. An empathetic response would be to listen to their anger, fear, sadness, and frustration and tell them, “It sounds like this has been a really difficult day for you.”

The compassionate response would be to continue with your empathetic response by sharing their feelings and saying something like, “This has been such a difficult day for you today. Can I grab you dinner from your favorite restaurant to help you relax?”

It is clear that sympathy, empathy, and compassion all play a distinct role in your support of a cancer patient. Now that you know when each comes into play within the support experience, it’s time to start putting them into practice! 

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Ring Theory: The Ins & Outs of Sharing Feelings

When your friend gets diagnosed with cancer, it can be hard to know what to say. We all know that cancer affects everyone around the patient, not just the patient. But when you center yourself in conversations about someone else’s cancer, you’re likely to offend them inadvertently. I recently learned about a concept that helps handle crises and I think all supporters of cancer patients should become comfortable with it: Ring Theory.

The Ring Theory

Ring Theory was a concept developed by a psychologist named Susan Silk when she had breast cancer. She found others around her consistently centering themselves in conversations about her cancer, something most of us with cancer have experienced. Through this experience, she developed Ring Theory as a technique to help others avoid making the same mistakes, and it applies to all crises you may encounter, not just cancer.

Start by drawing a small circle in the middle of a page and write the name of the person dealing with the crisis in the center. Then, draw another circle around that circle and write the name(s) of the people closest to the person in the center. Continue drawing concentric circles and writing names inside them as much as necessary, putting closer people toward the center and more distant friends and relatives in the larger outside circles. Now that you have your concentric circles, you have only a few simple rules: 

  1. The person in the center is the only one who can complain about whatever they want, to whoever they want. 
  2. The people in outer circles can complain as well, but only to people in the larger circles. 
  3. If you’re talking to someone whose circle is smaller than yours, you are only allowed to provide help and support. 

In essence, comfort goes inwards, and dumping goes outwards.

Ring Theory

Illustration by Wes Bausmith for the Los Angeles Times

This sounds very simple and something that everyone should know, but when a crisis occurs with someone you love, it’s often difficult to remember that you’re not in the center of it all. We all know that you would never tell a cancer patient that you weren’t prepared for how sick they look, but would you remember not to say that to their significant other, parent, or best friend? Maybe not. Ring Theory helps us put into perspective how the crisis affects everyone and gives you an idea of who you can dump your feelings on versus who you should provide help and support to. 

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The Blood Crisis: What Every Young Adult Should Know

When you Google how to support a friend through cancer, you will find lots of ideas, from running errands to keeping them company through chemo to delivering meals to them. But this month, in honor of National Blood Donor Month, we wanted to bring awareness to a very important but often ignored way to support your friend with cancer and all cancer patients across the country: giving blood. blood crisis

Donor blood is a key asset in the fight against cancer

Cancer patients use more than ¼ of the nation’s blood supply, more than patients with any other disease, and yet only 3% of the US population donates blood according to the Red Cross. Cancer patients need blood for a whole host of reasons, from cancer in the bone marrow that crowds out normal blood cells to chemotherapy that causes anemia to surgery and bone marrow transplants. 

Unfortunately, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we are in the midst of the worst blood crisis we’ve seen in the past ten years. The Red Cross, which supplies 40% of the nation’s blood supply, says that they have less than one day’s worth of certain blood types. Since blood supply is so low, it has led to cancer patients being forced to wait until their counts hit dangerously low levels before they can get a blood transfusion. Moreover, less than 10% of the eligible population donates blood on an annual basis, so there was already room for improvement prior to this crisis. This is especially important for young adults. Currently, only 10% of blood donations come from people aged 23-29, and 12% come from people in their 30s despite young adults often being stronger and better candidates for blood donation, and young adults being the most common recipients of donor blood. 

Many myths keep young adults from donating blood

One of the big ones is that you can’t give blood after getting a tattoo or piercing; this is false as long as you got your tattoo or piercing at a state-regulated facility, you can donate blood immediately! If it was at a non-regulated facility, you only need to wait a few months before donating. You can also give blood if you’re an alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana user! It is just advisable that you do not use these substances within a few hours before your donation. Many people also assume that you should not give blood if you have a chronic condition or are taking chronic medication. While some conditions and medications do prevent you from giving blood, the majority do not. Check your eligibility for giving blood here

It’s clear that cancer patients urgently need more people to get out and give blood and to continue making recurring blood donations, especially our fellow adolescent and young adult friends. What better time to donate than National Blood Donor Month? While platelets, O+ and O- blood are in the highest demand, all blood is critically needed, and you can help save lives by giving whatever blood you can. If the cancer patient you’re supporting has a compatible blood type with yours, you can even do what’s called a Direct Donation, where you give blood specifically to be used by that person (though call the blood bank in advance as there may be specific requirements, processing fees, and the blood may go to waste if the patient isn’t able to use it in time). If you don’t have a compatible blood type with them, they will surely still appreciate that you gave blood to help other cancer patients, just as other selfless donors have done for them. 

To find out more and schedule your appointment to give blood, check out blood drives through the Red Cross, or find your local blood bank through AABB (Association for the Advancement of Blood & Biotherapies) here.

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