Sunday, July 8, 2012

Five Questions Worth Asking

Whenever I've met people who have cancer, I've been at a loss for what to say and what questions to ask.

I realize the irony.

If I had to guess, I would say whatever I said ranged from horrible to not altogether upsetting. So often, I would just say nothing. I would talk about anything and everything else, but not about their cancer, being fully cognizant of the elephant in the room. 

But here's the thing: the elephant's not in the room. At least not for the cancer patient; not all the time. It may have been all that I could think about, but as I've said in this space many times before, to let the topic of conversation be the elephant is to let the disease define the person.

And it doesn't. 


So not discussing the topic is always a completely acceptable option. But if you feel compelled by compassion, concern or curiosity to ask questions, (and assuming your friend is open to talking) here are a few good ones to ask. All of them  have been asked of me many times by many friends and family members. I only wish I had been able to think of any of these when I was on the asking side.

  • How are you? Seems simple enough. But it's better than: are you okay? Because most cancer survivors if they're in anything but full cure, aren't okay, by definition. They have cancer. Are you okay? asks for a yes or no answer and it's just not simple.
  • What type of cancer is it? This beats the alternative that I've heard asked "Is it the good kind of cancer?" There are different types of cancer to be sure -- and all have different outcomes and different prognosis -- and it's important to know what cancer type your friend may be battling. But there is no good kind of cancer.
  • How's Stacy? Granted, this only works if you have a significant other named Stacy. But cancer diagnoses place a hugely unfair burden on spouses/significant others; they're often the unforgotten partners who bear the brunt of logistical challenges, not to mention the difficult emotional challenges. It's always good to ask this, particularly if your friend's significant other is named Stacy. If not, improvise.
  • Is there anything I can do? 99 times out of 100, the answer will be no. But it lends great support just to ask the question. But be careful, one of these times, someone will say: Yes.
  • Want to grab a beer?  Or coffee. Or Del's Lemonade. Or fruit smoothie. Boredom is anxiety's playing partner. Getting together would be its own benefit just from its ability to keep people busy and off the information overload online; but a beverage and the company of a friend makes it even more valuable.

As I said, these questions and many other compassionate questions have been asked of me. Even more numerous have been the messages of support, prayer, good vibes, positive juju, you name it. All of it - every last well-meaning word is appreciatively received.