What to Say To Someone Who Has Cancer – The Ring Theory


As many of you may recall, I have written quite a bit about what to say and WTF not to say to someone with FBC (f-bomb breast cancer) as well as how to be a friend to someone coping with illness or other f-bombs. I think that when an f-bomb explodes in life, we all want to know how to be and what to do.

Well, lo and behold, twice in the last two days, I’ve been told about the The Ring Theory. When I read the LA Times article about it, I had major goosebumps because I realized that the theory authors Susan Silk and Barry Goldman are really onto something!

What excites me so much about The Ring Theory is that it is positively instructive for patients, family and friends.  Susan says that the theory works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential. 

The whole philosophy of The Ring Theory is: Comfort IN, dump OUT. Here’s what to do:

  1. Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma.
  2. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma.
  3. In each larger ring put the next closest people, keeping in mind that parents and children go before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones.
  4. You can draw as many rings as you would like. 

This is what the Ring Theory looks like:

Here are the rules of The Ring Theory:

  1. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.
  2. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings (i.e., Dump OUT).
  3. When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help (i.e., Comfort IN). Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it.

One of our close family friends went off the grid after my diagnosis. He didn’t know how to handle it, later said, “I didn’t know what to say or do and didn’t want to do the wrong thing.” The HOTY felt like he had to be a caregiver to not only me but also that person. Kind of convoluted, right? Susan and Barry suggest that screaming, crying, complaining and whining are fine. After all, it’s normal to wonder WTF? after a close (young) friend is diagnosed with FBC. The key is to do it to someone in a bigger ring.  Dump OUT.

This theory is a major Silver Lining because it makes so much sense. It is respectful of the feelings of everyone impacted by the diagnosis or catastrophic event.

What do you think?  Would you try drawing your own Ring?



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  1. Maria says

    My son was diagnosed with cancer last year. While my son was having brain surgery (just a day after we found out about his tumor) a woman with a child the same age as our son (and a family friend) showed up, in hysterics. She told us that all she’s been doing is thinking about her son and what if it happened to him, she wouldn’t be able to deal with it. She was crying, whining, complaining and what iffing for about an hour before our pastor had the wherewithal to take her away from us.

    I was exhausted by her and felt terrible as well. While my son was recovering, she showed up at the hospital with gifts for him, and more “oh my god, if this were my son I would be…” and we asked her to leave. We then had her barred from visiting. It was just too much to take. She hasn’t spoken to us since. It’s like she never understood that she was turning the focus on her and not considering at all how those of us that were actually facing this issue were feeling.

    While this circle thing is an interesting idea, people like that can’t help but put themselves in the center. She even continues to make Facebook posts like “If my son lost my hair like that I would cry.” as my son is going through chemo. It’s a bit crazy!

  2. says

    I was just recently reading about the ring theory while trying to figure out how best to support a close friend who is grieving. I found it very helpful and applicable to many situations. xo

  3. says

    I loved this concept. It has been almost a year since my diagnosis and quite frankly I am still amazed at the things people say, even from my dearest friends. There are days when it rolls off my back and others when I am so frustrated! I wish everyone could read this.

    Thanks for sharing!


  4. Kim C says

    Oh yes, Hollye! This is so helpful! It' so easy to visualize the rings at anytime. I can see how it might even be helpful for those in the center ring…. to remember how much FC is impacting those in the small rings around us….. and to try to be compassionate about their pain as well. I think most of us are subconsciously aware of the rings, but when it's written like this little formula, it's quick for us to access when we need it most – for all kinds of situations. I'm happy to learn yet another coping skill from you! Thanks! I look forward to your blog so much and I come away with something every single day!
    Take care,