Why talk? Why listen?
Talking is a way of asking for and giving information - such as saying when you’ll meet somebody. But, even more important than this, it’s the simple human desire to make a connection with another person and to be listened to.
Talking to each other is the best method of communication we have. But how you talk is just as important as the words you use. The way you speak can show warmth and concern, as can a smile, a glance or a touch, if you know the person well enough.
Some studies suggest that more than half of our communication is done through our body language. Non-verbal ways of communicating include kissing, touching, smiling, frowning and maybe just being together without feeling the need to talk. If a person close to you is upset, they may not be able to take in much of what you say, but they may still appreciate your support.
Text and email have become familiar ways of communicating for many people now, but they lack the togetherness of talking face-to-face. Talking face-to-face is often the most efficient and personal way we have of communicating. Although other ways of communicating are important, it often helps to talk first. Having discussions and being able to ask questions offer the best ways of making any communication clear between people.
When things go wrong, people often talk about what’s bothering them in an attempt to ‘get it off their chest’. This releases some of their stress so they feel better. Finding the words to describe experiences and feelings can help make sense of them and bring them into perspective. Talking can be a huge relief. As a listener, you don’t need to have all the answers. You can help someone just by listening and simply allowing them to talk.
If a person doesn’t have anyone to talk to, they are more likely to be anxious and depressed. People who are seriously ill may find that one of their biggest problems is that people won’t talk to them so they feel isolated. This may make them feel even worse.
There are a number of reasons why a person may be reluctant to talk to someone who is seriously ill. One is that they’re concerned that if they talk to their relative, friend or loved one about the cancer or its treatment, doing so will increase their distress. In practice this doesn’t happen often. Conversations between people who are ill and their relatives and friends usually don’t create new fears and anxieties. In fact, the opposite is often true: not talking about a fear can make it bigger.
Talking about how you feel can be difficult. One reason for this can be a feeling of shame. A person may be ashamed of their reaction to their illness - whether it’s fear, sadness or the crying that accompanies these emotions. They may feel that they have somehow caused their cancer even though this isn’t so. They may be afraid but feel that they shouldn’t be.
You can help your relative or friend by listening to their concerns. By not changing the subject and allowing them to express their feelings, you show that you accept and understand them and this will help them feel better rather than worse.
There is much to be gained from talking with and listening to someone who has cancer. However, beginning a conversation in these circumstances can feel awkward and embarrassing, maybe even frightening. There are ways of overcoming these difficulties though.
Barriers to talking
There are several barriers that may block communication between you and the person who is ill.
The person who is ill:
may feel overwhelmed and stunned by the news of their diagnosis and find it difficult to talk
may be in denial, meaning they’re not accepting their diagnosis
may be afraid of hearing more bad news
may want to avoid becoming upset by thinking about their illness
may not want to cause their family and friends distress
may take a stiff upper lip approach to their illness by being strong and not complaining
may feel angry or depressed at having cancer, so they just want to be alone
may be too ill to talk much.
may be afraid of causing distress
may not know what to say
may feel overwhelmed yourself that someone close to you has cancer
may be unable to think clearly and find words of support.
These may seem like major hurdles. However, there are ways of listening and talking that can help you work out whether your relative or friend needs or wants to talk.
Advice from other carers
You can read other carers' tips about talking to someone with cancer in our booklet Hello, and how are you? [PDF, 914 kb] - a guide written by carers, for carers.