The Circle Theory

Helpful advice when a loved one or close friend is diagnosed with cancer.

When I was going through treatment for cancer, I was extremely fortunate to have such an amazing support network. Family and friends near and far rallied and helped in any way that they could. Those closest to me, protected me. They let me say what I needed to say and they put none of their crazy on me while I was in treatment. Meals were delivered by our sweet friends, almost every other day to our house. Care packages showed up, not only for stuff I needed during chemo, but with fun things for the kids to help take their mind off of all the heaviness that was weighing us all down. Emails, text messages and phone calls came in and got us through those tough days.

It wasn’t until last summer when I read this article by the wonderful Jen Hatmaker, that I realized the Circle Theory  was exactly what those closest to me actually did. They formed circles around me and allowed stress to go out, but not in. And this is something that I believe is critically important to others dealing with a cancer diagnosis or any other life altering stresses.

The Circle Theory is simple – all stress can ripple out, but none could ripple inward.

We didn’t invent this. Quite possibly it’s the way things are handled and have been handled for a long time. But it’s nice to see it in print and helps us when those close to us are dealing with sickness or crisis. Slightly different, but much the same as Jen outlines in her Family Cancer Manifesto, here is how our circles looked…

  • During treatment, I was in the center – the bulls-eye, because I was the one with cancer.
  • The second ring circling the center was my husband, Jason.
  • The third ring was our two kiddos.
  • The forth ring was my mom. Mom basically moved in with us and was the CEO of Childcare and Cafeteria Services (aka: helping me find something to eat that wouldn’t make me sick and bringing me food when I was too weak and sick to leave the bed). God bless her, I still don’t know what we would have done without her during all of this.
  • The fifth ring was the rest of our immediate family, our parents and siblings and spouses.
  • The sixth ring was all of our closest and best friends.
  • The seventh and outer ring was all of our other friends and neighbors and work colleagues, kids teachers, etc…
  • Everyone else is outside of those rings.

The point of the circle theory is that you shield the person inside the circle. Each level shields the rest. And it really works. Because all of the crazy can go outward. And each level of the rings keeps the crazy away from the next inward level. You can feel what you want to feel and say what you want to say – but you can only say it to a person who is in a ring outside your own. Let’s say (hypothetically speaking – because surely I would never have a meltdown or outburst…), but let’s say I had a day where I was a complete disaster. Total meltdown, tears, fear, frustration, stomping fit over cancer – all of it. And I call one of my besties in the sixth ring. Know what she would do? She would listen, absorb my crazy and have my back regardless. And she would not, under any circumstances, return that hysteria or have a meltdown to me. She would not call Jason and be like, “I can’t handle hearing Shannon like this.” She could, however, call someone in the sixth ring or further out to vent or cry or complain or whatever she needed to do to let go of what she absorbed from me.

As Jen said, “Our outer people have to deal with us without so much as a raised eyebrow… Outer rings can only send in the good. Absolutely no crazy.”

This protects the person in the center and those closest to the person in crisis. It doesn’t just have to be for cancer, it can be for any crisis or illness. And it works beautifully, we are living proof of it.

Social media can make this more difficult. We have the ability to email/text/Facebook Message/Tweet/Snapchat/comment on just about anything these days. Sometimes that’s a wonderful thing because it helps us connect. But other times, I want to throw my phone in the ocean with a “Bye Felicia” and never touch any type of social media again. So for me, this meant only answering things on social media or texts when I felt up to it. It also meant that I had amazing friends who totally policed my Facebook page and would answer questions for me. Or they would call me with jokes about a ridiculous comment someone typed on there, in order to make me laugh and not worry over it.

And y’all, the stories of “Oh, my brother’s girlfriend’s mom’s sister died of breast cancer.” Oh my god. Don’t. Just freaking please don’t tell those stories. It’s not helpful. Ever. We all, unfortunately, know someone who has died of cancer. And those of us dealing with cancer, REALLY don’t EVER want to hear those stories, especially while going through treatment. But if you do want to tell your story, tell it outward. Don’t tell me, or my kids, or mom or Jason or one of my best friends, or my brother or my neighbor – tell someone else outside the circles.

Even if you don’t have perfectly drawn out circles, just keep this all in mind when you have a friend or family member or neighbor with cancer or another major illness. The biggest thing to remember and focus on is – no stress in.

There was also a similar article written in the LA times on the same concept written a few years ago. Read both, they both offer really good advice for helping your friends and family when they need it most. However you draw it out, the point is to protect and nurture the people that need it the most during times of illness.

For my circle dwellers from last year… My beautiful and amazing friends and family who cared for us so tremendously, I am still completely humbled by your love. You picked us up and hugged us so tight, that it got us though. You wrote love on our arms and carried us through dark days. You fed us and nurtured us. You circled us and kept us safe. And I will forever love you and be grateful to you for it.

As much as it sucks, others that you know will be diagnosed with cancer or other diseases that are equally as awful. Circle them and keep them safe. It will help them more than you know.

So Much Love,
Shannon and all of us in the circles last year


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  • Reply Tiffany July 2, 2016 at 4:17 pm

    What a beautiful post! I’m so glad to be in your circle and was changed for the better because of it.

    • Reply Shannon July 2, 2016 at 6:33 pm

      Thank you Tiffany for being in my circle and loving us so much. And for taking me to chemo and buying me a salad… :) Love you!

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