Tom O’Brien – Talking About Cancer

The Advanced Breast Cancer Group workshop in October 2019, included a presentation from clinical social worker and psychotherapist Tom O’Brien. Tom has over 40 years’ experience as a clinical social worker and psychotherapist working with individuals, families and couples. In this series, titled ‘Talking about Cancer’, Tom discusses the importance of communication and connection for people living with metastatic breast cancer. He also responds to questions from participants at the workshop which were asked following the presentation.

1 - Effective Communication

Cancer brings with it a myriad of complex problems, not least of all experiences the person living with cancer has with others in their lives. In this 1st of 4 videos Tom talks about people living with cancer having control over how they share their experience with other people in their lives.

2 - Reading Between the Lines

In any social conversation, it is often a matter of reading between the lines to truly understand what the other person might be asking – what do they really want to know. This is particularly true when it comes to conversations about cancer. In this video, Tom aims to take the pressure off what might be a confronting or difficult conversation about cancer. He suggests ways to hear beyond the actual words to understand the meaning behind them. Do they really want to know about your cancer treatment, or do they simply want to know that you are alright? It is about understanding the questioners’ needs whilst protecting and standing up for your own. This is the 2nd in a series of 4 videos sharing insights and guidance about how to talk about cancer on your own terms.

3 - What does the questioner really want to know

Extending on from the previous video ‘Reading between the lines’ Tom further explores the concept of hearing the meaning that sits behind the words used in a question. Understanding your audience and changing tack depending on who you are talking to is a big part of this. Tom also touches on the intimacy of conversations with tears and talks about the value of those connections. This is the 3rd in a series of 4 videos sharing insights and guidance about how to talk about cancer on your own terms.

4 - The benefit of sharing experiences and asking for help

So far in this series, we have talked about talking with people living outside the direct experience of living with a metastatic diagnosis. In this video, Tom discusses the benefit of talking to others living a similar experience. This is true of our understanding over the past 21 years of the Advanced Breast Cancer Group – that with familiarity comes safety and a level of solidarity and hope. The important take away message from this final video is to know there is always help if you need it – be open to ask for and receive help – it can come from a range of places and can be a powerful source of emotional support. This is the 4th in a series of 4 videos sharing insights and guidance about how to talk about cancer on your own terms. The series can be watched by visiting

Q&A 1 - Articulating your needs

Question: in this first video, Tom responds to a question about how to ensure your wants, needs and concerns aren’t diminished when talking to health professionals.

Q&A 2 - Relationship building with health practitioners

In this second video the question from the group related to concerns about being treated as a number or a diagnosis rather than an individual. In response Tom highlighted the importance of relationship building with health practitioners in order to increase levels of trust, knowledge and ultimately efficacy in treatments.

Q&A 3 - Sharing your feedback

It is important to talk about how you are feeling with respect to the way health practitioners are engaging with you – whether that is good or not so good. In this 3rd video, Tom gives his views about the benefit that should come with open conversations.

Q&A 4 - Communication is key

Relationships in any part of life are a two-way street, and that is the same as those developed between a patient and their healthcare team. Here Tom emphasises the need for openness from the patient, and in response, action from the health practitioner. Ultimately in this 4 video Q&A series, communication is key – each video giving a guide to different aspects of communication with health practitioners, and all with the purpose of ensuring the patient is at the centre of every decision and the treatment is as personal and effective as possible.