By heatherericksonauthor.comThe Erickson Family

A Circle of Support: The Ring Theory

Ring Theory Circle of Support

The Ring Theory-Finding Your Circle of Support

The Ring Theory was created by breast cancer survivor and clinical psychologist, Dr. Susan Silk Ph.D., and arbitrator/mediator, Barry Goldman. The gist of it is this: Comfort in. Dump out. Who you comfort, and who you “dump” your grief on (in other words, who comforts you) will determine what circle of support you reside in.

Take out a piece of paper. In the middle of the page, draw a small circle. Label it with the patient’s name. The patient is in the center circle of support because the patient is the center of their cancer universe. It is everyone else’s job to support them. No one is allowed to dump on the patient. What does that mean?

The Patient- The Center

When Karen, a breast cancer patient was no longer able to bring meals to neighborhood functions or help with the kids’ school activities, people remarked at how hard it was without her, since they depended on her. Often, people say things like this to let the patient know they are important. However, this added a new layer of guilt to Karen’s shoulders, even though that was never the speakers’ intentions. So, don’t say anything to the patient regarding the effects of his/her cancer on you. Instead, listen to and comfort the patient. It’s about them—not you.

Circle of Support for a Spouse/Caregiver

What about their spouse or caregiver? They’re next in line for support. Draw another circle around the “patient” circle.  That’s the “spouse/caregiver” ring.  Only the patient is allowed to dump The spouse or caregiver. Anyone else should listen to and comfort the spouse or caregiver. So, it’s about the caregiver/spouse too—not you.

Circle of Support for Other Immediate Family Members

Next, draw another circle around the first, which will represent the immediate family. Immediate family can vent to anyone other than the patient and the spouse/caregiver.

One thing to note is that immediate family can vent with one another. They all share the same concerns and are able to comfort one another in a unique and special way.

Circle of Support for Extended Family, Friends, and ColleaguesRing Theory of Cancer Support

Draw a fourth circle around the immediate family circle. This one represents extended family and close friends.

A fifth circle will represent colleagues and friends. Each subsequent circle of people is a little more distant from the patient and their situation.

You never want to dump on or vent to someone in a circle closer to the patient than the circle you’re in.  For example, a friend would not dump on a parent or a spouse. They could, however, talk to another friend, or someone outside of the situation.

Circle of Support for Lookie-Loos

Lookie-Loos reside on the outer edge of the rings. These are people who have nothing at stake. They are the grocer or the guy that visits your garage sale, someone from church who hasn’t spoken to the patient or caregiver in months, or someone who happened to come upon the patient or caregiver’s blog.

Lookie-Loos can keep their thoughts to themselves. They aren’t allowed to dump on anyone, but they can offer comfort. In fact, many times, a lookie-loo has been a great source of encouragement to our family.

It’s Etiquette that Works in any Crisis

Hopefully, this explains in a nutshell, the etiquette of who to comfort (anyone who is hurting), and who to dump on (only people in a circle larger than yours—and never the patient).

Dumping or venting is anything that isn’t solely and directly supportive. Remember the adage, “It’s not about me.” While it may affect you, dumping on anyone in a circle closer to the patient than you are, can be seen as insensitive, selfish, and tacky, even when said with the best of intentions.

By the way, this works for any crisis someone may go through, health, financial, marital, etc.

This information and more is found in my book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer.

What are YOUR thoughts?

I’d love to hear in the comment section, below. I appreciate my readers as well as the writing community. To show that appreciation, I use Comment Luv. Just leave a comment below and your latest post will get a link next to it. Thank you!


In 2012 doctors diagnosed my husband, Dan, with stage IV lung cancer. Since then, our family has been learning what it means to face cancer. I’ve focused my writing and speaking on helping cancer patients and their families advocate for themselves and live life to the fullest, in spite of their illness. My goal is to help people face cancer with grace.

My book Facing Cancer as a Friend: How to Support Someone Who Has Cancer, is available on

Also, check out Facing Cancer as a Parent: Helping Your Children Cope with Your Cancer.

Also, put your memories into words with The Memory Maker’s Journal.

I also blog at Heather Erickson Author/Writer/Speaker

The Erickson Family, Photo by Everbranch Photography

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5 comments on “A Circle of Support: The Ring Theory

Hi Heather,
Before I comment on your post, a confusion – You mention that you’re not going to be online for January… but this post was written in May. Did you mean June or July? If it’s the case that you’re taking time now to protect and honour your writing time, good for you!

Your ring theory is brilliant. Not only would following it make an enormous positive difference to cancer patients and their families, but I can easily see its application, as you suggest, for any crisis. I truly hope that you and Dan are receiving all of the support and none of the dumping from your rings of connection.


Hi Karen,
Thank you for bringing that to my attention. It was originally posted in January. I’m not sure why, but many of my posts have the wrong date on them. Maybe I will take the dates off. I did delete the note about my digital break, though. I’m updating my book for a 2nd edition. The image in this post is referenced in the book. It was first published on my other site, so I needed to make some updates there, as well.

I can’t take credit for the theory. Dr. Susan Silk and Barry Goldman first came up with this great way of illustrating how to best support people in crisis. We are very fortunate to have such wonderful family and friends in our life.

Have a fantastic week!

Carolyn Holt

This is a wonderful idea. I am in the immediate family circle trying to be there for my niece. Having cancer is awful enough but when you have a wonderful circle of family and friends for support or just to lend a shoulder or a helping hand it makes a dent in the sadness.

Love this idea!


Hi Carolyn. I’m sorry for what your family is going through. It sounds like you are a wonderful aunt on whom your niece can count during this tough time. I can tell you that family has been the greatest gift to us all of these years. Best wishes!

J. L.

Thank you so much for this. A friend of mine made me aware of the circle of support when I was talking with her and asking advice. I am currently battling cancer and we are dealing with family members dumping on my spouse. He has always been the go-to person for everyone and we are struggling to get them to understand that he can no longer hold that role because pretty much everything in our lives right now revolves around this fight against cancer.

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