Empathy, Connection & Healing for Cancer Survivors

You need to watch this video. It’s less than three minutes long and, trust me, it’s worth every second. I’ll wait right here until you get back.

I’m so glad you watched the video. Now we can talk.

Brene Brown is my favorite academic. She’s a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work studying vulnerability, shame, courage, empathy and authenticity. Her concept of “wholeheartedness” (how to embrace our imperfections and vulnerabilities to live in a place of worthiness and authenticity) is groundbreaking. Her TED talk has over 12.5 million views and she recently sat with Oprah for a two-part Super Soul Sunday.

As cancer survivors, (heck, as human beings) we’ve all spent some time in the deep, dark hole of despair. I’ve felt fox-like pain from break-ups, miscarriages, infertility, and cancer, just to name the biggies.

Memorable bears who came down the ladder in empathy include my brother-in-law Bob. He called me after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, his discomfort obvious, and admitted that he had no idea what to say. His honesty and desire to connect with me despite some awkwardness touched me deeply. It felt like, and was, a gift of love.

I also remember my brother Robert, who called me after my surgery every day for weeks on his drive home from work. He obviously had no idea what it felt like to have a mastectomy, but checking in with me was a soulful reminder of our life-long sibling connection.

And each and every cancer survivor I communed with who “got it” (that’s my shorthand for “Hey, I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone,”) helped me heal and climb out of the black hole in which I found myself.

Counter their empathy with the stupid, hurtful things other people said just to say something. The pain they caused felt like being left all alone in the world. As Brene said, their “sympathy” drove “disconnection.”

A few days after I first watched this video, I was talking with two breast cancer survivors. When the subject of surgeries came up, I mentioned I had some side effects as a result of my TRAM flap reconstruction. One of the women, who had elected not to have reconstruction after her unilateral mastectomy, responded, “at least you have a breast.”

I immediately felt put down, proving Brene’s point that “rarely if ever does an empathetic response begin with “at least.” It was a rare sighting of the survivor’s one-upmanship I wrote about in an earlier post and the polar opposite of the empathy I usually share with other survivors. It also left me with classic cancer survivor’s guilt.

Do you want to respond like a deer or do you want to connect like a bear? We all have fox moments and we can all be bears reaching out in empathy and connection to make it better for someone else. The beauty of practicing empathy is that we become healers. And that is the purest form of giving back that I can think of, bar none.

Survival > Existence,


Image courtesy of Kathy Drasky


I love Brene Brown, found her

Wed, 12/18/2013 – 09:10Claudia Schmidt (not verified)

I love Brene Brown, found her on TED as well. As always, a very thoughtful, well put post on how to live your life (whether you’ve had breast cancer or not). These are such universal concepts you’ve shared. xo

Debbie's picture

A Great Video & Universal Message

Hi Claudia:

Brene is first and foremost a teacher and I’ve learned so much from her. The animation in the video is simple, yet so elegantly emphasizes her message. I just love it.

Survival > Existence,


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