Positive thinking can play a huge part in a coping with the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. For some people, finding ways to remain optimistic and hopeful is as important as finding the right medical professionals and treatment. It’s also essential to shine a light on the shadow side of living with cancer though. Beneath the optimism and hope some days cancer leaves you feeling alone, hopeless, irritable, fed up and scared. And of course it does. Cancer forces us to confront our own mortality. Cancer triggers our deepest, darkest fears about death and dying. Fears that in general are not spoken about.

Of course everyone’s experience of navigating cancer is different, and the purpose of this post is not to suggest that positive thinking is wrong or unhelpful. Nor is it to suggest that acknowledging, analysing and expressing negative feelings is the right way to respond. We each have our own ways of coping. The intent of this post is simply to suggest that meeting a person where they are at is powerful. There can be incredible comfort in having someone listen to the truth about what is going on inside your head.

Conversations about pain and suffering can be confronting for the person speaking and the person listening. As the listener we might find ourselves changing topics or “lightening” the conversation in order to take care of the other person. Sometimes though, if we are really honest with ourselves, talking about cancer confronts us with our own fears about suffering and impermanence. It is also heart-breaking to listen to someone you love speak about their pain. We feel helpless and scared for them, and we want to make it better.

If you are supporting someone who is living with cancer be mindful of whether you unconsciously shift the conversation away from the uncomfortable, painful or confronting parts of their experience. When you do this you may notice yourself interjecting with phrases like “be strong” “keep fighting” “don’t give up the battle” or “look on the bright side”. These well-meaning expressions could be just what the person wants and needs from you. Likewise though they might want and need the space to speak freely about their fears and anxieties, their anger and their sadness. By resisting the urge to cheer-up, motivate or distract, you are truly listening, being responsive. Perhaps in the process you might help the person to feel less alone in their experience, or at the very least to feel heard.

For some people voicing their pain and fear feels like giving up. For others though, pain and fear can exist side by side with hope and optimism. Cancer is an emotional rollercoaster. Exhaustion and terror may fill one day and gratitude and peace the next. Some people find inspiration within their cancer or feel a new appreciation for life. Others don’t. It’s important not to burden people living with cancer with expectations about how they should respond. This denies them the freedom to just say it like it is. Being responsive and meeting a person where they are at, regardless of where that may be, can be a gift.