If someone you love has metastatic breast cancer, it’s normal to feel like you don’t know the right things to say to them. Communication can be challenging even in the best circumstances. Coping with cancer can make things even more difficult.
Empathy can be a powerful way to connect with your loved one and better understand how they’re feeling. You can’t fix what they’re going through, but lending an empathic ear can provide comfort.
It’s powerful to know that you’re loved and cared about, no matter how you’re feeling.
Empathy is connecting with someone by putting yourself in their position — like walking a mile in their shoes. When you work to understand someone else’s perspective, it creates a powerful connection. The use of empathy improves communication and helps strengthen relationships.
Empathy works even if the person is in a very different situation from your own.
Empathy means sharing in someone else’s feelings. The goal of using empathic language isn’t to cheer someone up, jump in with solutions, or try to point out the silver lining.
The human brain wants to avoid uncomfortable emotions. It’s normal to want to try and fix how someone is feeling. It takes some practice to accept a range of emotions without feeling the need to change them.
Really listen to the person to grasp how they’re feeling. Let them know you understand and that they’re not alone.
Imagine that you had a difficult day at work and you’re telling a friend about it. Here are some responses that use empathetic language:
- “That does sound terrible.”
- “Thank you for telling me.”
- “I’m here with you if you want to keep talking about it.”
Here are some responses that don’t use empathetic language:
- “Oh, you should hear about the day I had!”
- “You should start looking for a new job.”
- “Hey, at least you still have a job.”
Consider how the different responses make you feel. Either way, you may still be upset about your day, and that’s OK. The use of empathetic language builds a connection with another person. You’re no longer alone with your difficult feelings.
Part of understanding how another person is feeling is learning more about what they’re going through.
If you’re the person’s caregiver, you may already attend medical appointments with them. Accompanying your loved one to their doctor appointments will help you learn more about their condition and what to expect. Their medical team will also be able to connect you with other resources if you want to learn more.
Going with your loved one to their medical appointments can also help you get a better understanding of their treatment plan, and the time and energy treatment requires.
If you don’t attend appointments, ask your loved one’s permission to speak with their medical team directly.
Being empathetic is about your language, but it’s also about your actions. When you ask a question, pay close attention to the answer. Give your loved one your full attention and really listen to what they’re saying.
Don’t try to change the emotions they’re feeling or jump in with solutions. Do your best to just sit with the feelings and imagine how they feel for your loved one.
Asking your loved one open-ended questions will help you find out more about how they’re feeling. Open-ended questions require more than a simple yes or no answer. They often start with who, what, when, where, or how.
Here are some examples of empathetic questions that are open-ended:
- “What’s been the most challenging thing for you today/this week?”
- “What have you tried to help you sleep?”
- “How is [symptom] affecting you?”
Actively listen to their answer. This means being completely focused on what the other person is saying. Take in what they’re saying without any judgment.
Try not to create a response while they’re still talking. It takes practice, but it’s possible to train yourself to be a better listener. We all want to feel heard and understood.
When you’re a caregiver to someone with a chronic disease, you become very focused on the person’s needs. It’s easy to forget that you need care too.
Think about the things in life that bring you the most joy. Try to find opportunities to fit those things into your schedule. Remember that you don’t have to do everything yourself.
It may be worth exploring whether respite care is available. You can also look into hiring help.
Support may be available with housekeeping, meals, shopping, or yard maintenance. To show up as your best self for your loved one, you have to take care of yourself, too.
Consider finding emotional support through a caregiver group or working with a counselor.
A loved one’s diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is difficult to face for anyone. Empathy is a powerful way to connect with them.
The goal of empathy isn’t to “fix” how someone is feeling or get rid of difficult emotions. It’s about connecting with your loved one emotionally so they feel less alone.