Two Big Cs For Cancer Patients: Compassionate Communication

“Sending a patient to do battle with cancer without any training is like parachuting a soldier into the jungle without the benefit of survival training.” —Michael Lerner, president, Commonwealth

In this age of rapid healthcare delivery, the big C can be overlooked when it comes to caring and communicating with cancer patients. The C I’m referring to is Compassion. In fact, there’s another C here — the Caregiver — they also seek compassion when interfacing with their oncology healthcare team. 

While it is important that the patient and his or her team understand the planned treatment and the possible side effects, some people do not feel comfortable talking with a doctor. They may be afraid of asking a silly question. They may be worried that they won’t understand what the doctor is saying. This is an aspect of healthcare that is not likely to change.



No matter how advanced technology becomes, the human response to “you’ve got cancer” will be just that, human, including shock, fear, confusion, and an inability to consume most of the information being provided to them by their doctor. These are predictable responses that beg for compassionate communication and care, especially in an increasingly technological world.

In fact, according to the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Care, “...Many caregivers today are anxious, frustrated and under pressure – with no structured outlet for expressing their feelings and little preparation for the difficult communication issues that are an inevitable part of patient care." 

As you create patient engagement content, keep in mind that there are common dynamics that happen between doctor and patient that perpetuate a lack of effective communication, and we, as marketers, can help empower a change through authentic, honest communication and education. Here are some common patient pitfalls: 

  • Allowing doctors to discuss sensitive matters in semi-public places.  
  • Being reluctant to ask for more time to make a decision.
  • Being embarrassed to ask a “dumb” question.
  • Not making a list of questions prior to seeing the doctor.
  • Not taking notes while talking with the doctor.
  • Not analyzing the doctor’s responses to questions and asking follow-up questions.
  • Withholding information (patients are not readily going to admit that they are non-compliant to a treatment, or may neglect to report a medical condition).
  • Pretending to understand.

Here are some suggestions from the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship to help us help patients and caregivers prepare: 

  • Provide patients with guidance about not only taking someone along with them for emotional support, but making sure that person is a good listener. Often a patient doesn’t consider skills such as being able to document a conversation with the doctor, and think objectively. Patients need to be able to rely on careful notes after they get home, and ensure that if something isn’t clear, their companion will ask the doctor to repeat the information.
  • Encourage patients to try to picture (visualize) what is being explained to them. Give your audience examples, like asking their doctor to show them a picture or drawing that will help them understand where their cancer is, how tests will be performed, and how their cancer will be treated. 
  • Physicians aren’t necessarily attuned to health literacy. Patients must be empowered to ask their doctor to explain unfamiliar terms. Help your audience understand that their care will be optimized only if they understand what’s being said so that they can become an effective partner in their treatment and recovery. 
  • Encourage patients and caregivers to ask for a bit more time so they can verbalize what they heard. If they repeat to the doctor what they thought he or she said, that gives the healthcare team feedback and an opportunity to clear up communication problems. Plus, it reminds the physician that sometimes communication needs to be slower and more deliberate.

Most of us know that cancer patients deserve compassion, and are looking for it. And most of us know that communication is essential in a healthy doctor-patient relationship. By considering these two Cs together we can bridge an existing gap, and a gap that technology alone will never bridge.

Next story loading loading..