Graphic illustration of Susan Silk's Ring Theory

How to Support a Loved One with Cancer

The inspiration for the Ring Theory began when psychologist Susan Silk had breast cancer. She underwent surgery for it, and during her recovery in the hospital, Susan found that she didn’t feel like having visitors. This is a common feeling for many cancer patients – they’re exhausted by treatment or the emotional toll, and simply don’t have energy to give to others.

But Susan quickly learned that her friends didn’t necessarily understand this. When she tried explaining to a colleague, who had come to visit, that she just wasn’t in the mood, it didn’t go well: her colleague responded to Susan by saying, “This isn’t about you!” Meaning that, Susan’s needs were a lower priority that those of her potential visitors.

We can see almost immediately that this was not the right thing to say to a cancer patient! And it probably put a lot of unneeded emotional stress on Susan. So Susan went about creating the Ring Theory to teach others what to say – and what NOT to say – during times of crisis to help the people most in need.

Graphic illustration of Susan Silk's Ring Theory
Susan Silk’s Ring Theory reminds us to put the cancer patient’s needs first.

So How Does the Ring Theory Work?

Ring 1: The Cancer Patient

The key to Silk’s Ring Theory is that support flows inward and venting flows outward. For this to happen, the patient always remains at the centre ring. They can vent, talk, scream, cry to anyone in any of the outer rings. They do not need to give support to anyone, not even their partner. Their only job is to receive support. 

Ring 2: Spouse, Children, and Immediate Caregivers

The next closest ring to the patient is reserved for people who are closest to the patient. This is often the spouse, children, and immediate caregivers. They are there to support the cancer patient – and when they need emotional support, or to vent about the situation, they can turn to the people in the outer rings. For instance, Susan’s husband is there to support her through the cancer; and when he needs support, he’ll reach out to other people who are further away from the immediate situation. He will not turn to Susan.

Ring 3, 4, 5: Everyone Else Who Knows the Patient

Rings 3, 4, and 5 hold the remaining people in the patient’s life. The people in these rings give support to anyone in rings closer to the patient. For example, Susan’s mother (Ring 3) could vent to her sister (Ring 4), but not to Susan’s husband (Ring 2). She supports those who are in the inner rings (Ring 1 and 2) and she can vent to people in the outer rings (Ring 4,5,6).

Ring 6: The Lookie-Loos

The very outer circle is the Lookie-Loos. This encompasses anyone with no emotional attachment to the patient: for example, the doctors and nurses helping the patient, random people like the lady at the grocery store, and other folks in the community or neighbourhood. Lookie-Loos have no one to vent to; their only job is to offer support to those in the inner circles. Despite their name and position in the outer ring, it may seem as though Lookie-Loos serve no real purpose. However, they can actually play a very important role because of their emotional detachment to the situation. For instance, counsellors and therapists fall into this category.

A doctor holds a patient's hands.

How to Offer Support to a Loved One

So what does offering support look like? Here are some examples of things you can do to support people in the inner rings:

  • Just sit and listen – let them vent!
  • Offer to do errands for them (groceries, dry cleaning, gardening, shovelling snow)
  • Bring over food or meals
  • Offer to take the dog out for a walk or take their kids for an outing
  • 
Make sure you’re taking care of your own emotional needs so you don’t experience caregiver burnout.

Basically, anything that will ease their daily life is a form of support. Just be sure that they actually need it, or else your gesture goes back to being about you and not them.

How to Accept Support from Loved Ones

Sometimes we can be very willing to give support yet hesitant to accept it – it might feel like a sign of weakness or lack of independence. But the opposite is true: accepting support is a sign of strength and can be vital to recovery. Here are some tips for learning to accept support from others.

  • Say “yes” when someone offers to do a task or errand for you, if it feels useful.
  • Be clear about what would be helpful. Would another casserole in the freezer be one too many? Then say that you don’t need anymore – and instead suggest what would be helpful, like walking the dog or babysitting.
  • It’s okay to tell someone that you just want to talk and vent (and not necessarily receive advice in return).
  • Be choosy about who you talk and vent to. Not everyone has the capacity to listen in a helpful, compassionate way.
  • Seek professional support. If no one in your life can give you the help you need, consider hiring people if you can: cleaners, gardeners, caregivers, counsellors, and so on.
  • Check out support groups – there are many support networks for people with cancer and their loved ones. Many of them are online, so you can stay at home and still feel connected.
A red wooden heart is held by two sets of hands.

Emotional Support is an Important Part of Cancer Care

Cancer takes a big mental and emotional toll on everyone involved. It’s important to address the emotional aspects, as well as treat the physical disease. Our psychological health can impact one’s recovery and quality of life – before, during, and after treatment.

If you or a loved one have received a cancer diagnosis and are feeling overwhelmed, contact CTOAM today. We’ll help you to access the resources and professional support you need during this difficult time. Our cancer care team is always standing by to help you any way we can.

Whether you’re looking for cancer counselling & ongoing support, advocacy, or the most accurate diagnosis and most effective treatmentswe are here for you

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Published by on December 16, 2018
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