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Just Listen

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Visitors often leave the Cancer Resource Center with words of sincere appreciation. They’ll say, “You were so helpful to me.” What’s noteworthy is how often this help had taken the form of listening. When people are diagnosed with cancer, they’re inundated with information, advice, and other forms of input. Nearly every conversation they have presents something new to process, even if it’s just the worried expression on a friend’s face.

At the Cancer Resource Center, we try to keep our mouths shut, and to listen without judgment or agenda. We train our volunteers to do this, and it’s far more difficult than they expect. Most of us instinctively try to reassure the person with cancer, share our own experiences, or otherwise just talk. What’s far more useful is giving people with cancer the quiet space they need to think through the information they already possess. Most have half-formed thoughts that float in and out of their consciousness. When given the opportunity to reflect and “think out loud,” their thoughts become less abstract and more concrete. That’s when decisions can be made and forward movement is possible.

Friends of people with cancer can provide the same service. The number one rule for friends is to listen more than talk. Don’t fill up quiet space with nervous chatter. Let the person with cancer take the lead in determining the topics and the pacing.

How can you best help a friend with cancer? Just listen.


Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here to see all of Bob’s columns

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