Self Compassion for Cancer Survivors


A Story

One of my patients inspired my writing on the topic of self compassion. Let’s call him Jim.

Jim has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He is young, in his mid 40’s. I didn’t know him prior to his diagnosis but now, after his diagnosis, I can say with certainty he’s very, very angry.

Who could blame him? He’s handsome and has a young family and beautiful wife. And he has terminal cancer. This wasn’t supposed to happen to him. It’s unjust. It’s not fair.

But Jim is remarkable for his anger. It’s arresting. He can’t sit still in the clinic waiting room. He paces while waiting for his visit, red-faced. When he sits in the exam room he seethes with clenched fists. Discussions are hard because he doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t feel well and seems resentful of advice aimed at easing his suffering. He’s livid.

Jim’s wife calls our clinic frequently in tears because she doesn’t know what to do. I worry about how his anger is affecting their last months together.

Jim’s behavior doesn’t offend me. I get it. But I wish I could ease his suffering and I’m guessing he’s not just angry at the world - he’s probably very angry with himself. Can you imagine his inner dialogue? What is he telling himself about his circumstances?

I just hope Jim finds a way to show himself compassion at some point in his journey. I’m not sure it’s my place to tell him how to do it. But I would like to explore the idea of self compassion in cancer survivorship because I think it’s incredibly important to remember we’re all deserving of kindness - especially from ourselves.

What is self compassion?

While researching self compassion, I found Kristen Neff, an expert on the topic. She has a great website and I encourage you to check it out HERE. I will certainly not do the topic justice the way she can, but for our purposes let me summarize a few important things I’ve learned.

Self compassion is simply being kind to yourself when you fail or stumble. It’s essentially treating yourself with the same kind of understanding you would a close friend or loved one. When a friend makes a mistake you say, “It’s ok, everyone makes mistakes. Pick yourself up and try again. Nobody’s perfect and you won’t be judged on one failure.”

When you make a mistake, what do you say to yourself? And furthermore, are you even aware of what you say to yourself, of your inner dialogue? I think it would benefit all of us to pay closer attention to our inner self talk.

According to Dr. Neff, self compassion has three components:

  1. Self-Kindness vs. Self-Judgment

    • Self-compassion, as defined above, is treating ourselves with understanding when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. Self-compassion is catalyzed by knowing that imperfection and difficulty are inevitable and thus, the logical reaction is sympathy and kindness.

    • Self judgment results from denying this inevitability (either by ignoring our own pain or unrealistic expectations of self and life) and results in stress, frustration and self-criticism. 

  2. Common Humanity vs. Isolation

    • Self-compassion follows the knowledge that suffering and imperfection are part of being human.

    • Self judgement follows the assumption that “I am the only one this happens to.”

  3. Mindfulness vs. Over-Identification

    • Objective observation of negative emotions promotes self-compassion because you learn to see and acknowledge thoughts without judging, enabling you to recognize them for what they are and put them in greater perspective.

    • Over identifying with negative thoughts prevents this mindful, non judgmental awareness and instead makes them personal and powerful.

How To Cultivate Self Compassion

For some, integrating ideas of self compassion into established mindfulness practices like journaling or meditation will be seamless. For others, beginning to treat yourself with compassion will be a totally new experience, almost like turning a life long enemy into a friend.

A great place to start is with the simple awareness of the possibility of treating yourself with compassion. Once you’re aware, you can begin to listen to those thoughts in your head. Maybe take a moment every morning and just notice what you’re saying to yourself - are you kind or ruthless, warm or cold? Write your inner conversation down. Are you speaking to yourself as you would to your best friend? If not, say something kind to yourself. How does it feel?


Cancer survivors can certainly benefit from applying the components of self compassion. I think of the cancer survivors I work with who punish themselves for “feeling lazy” due to their fatigue. Or who are ashamed of physical changes they’ve experienced due to cancer treatment. Or blame themselves for having cancer in the first place. They sit in judgement of themselves when they really deserve to pat themselves on the back, acknowledge their mistakes as part of being human, and just feel proud of doing their best.

I think that’s what you deserve and I hope you’ll think about it the next time you feel down on yourself. And I hope that Jim will, too.

Take care, Survivor.



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Brio exists to help cancer survivors derailed by fatigue find energy with healthy living.