How to say the right thing to a cancer patient

Ring theory is a very simple way to understand where you are in relation to a patient and how to avoid saying the wrong things.

Comfort in. Dump out.

Have you ever had someone tell you they had cancer and weren’t quite sure what to say? Help is here.

Ring TheoryRing theory is a concept developed by clinical psychologist Susan Silk and Barry Goldman after Susan survived breast cancer. It’s a very simple way to understand where you are in relation to a patient and avoid saying the wrong things.

Draw a circle. At the very center of it is the cancer patient. Around the patient is another circle, a ring only slightly larger than the one containing the patient. That ring is for the patient’s closest people: immediate family and close friends. Then draw a larger circle; this wider ring is for friends, distant family, neighbors, classmates, and so on. Continue drawing ever-widening circles until you get to the largest ring, anonymous strangers.


Here’s how it works

Help and support flow inward to the center of the circle from any point; the patient, after all, is the focus. But complaining, and in particular complaining about any aspect of the patient’s condition and how hard it is for you, can only go outward. If a co-worker is sick, you don’t tell her sister how difficult it is for you, just as the patient’s friend doesn’t dump her frustrations on the patient. Comfort in; dump out.

It’s easy to do when you really see the patient at the center of it all. And when you are the patient, you need to see yourself that way as well. Inside concentric circles of support.

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