Five Questions to Ask A Cancer Patient

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by Michael Buller

Whenever I’ve met people with cancer, I’ve been at a loss for what to say and which questions to ask.

Now, as a cancer patient, I realize the irony.

Looking back, whatever I said ranged from ignorant to unhelpful. Or, I would just say nothing. I would talk about anything and everything else, but not about the cancer, being fully aware 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. To let the topic of conversation be the elephant is to let the disease define the person. And it doesn’t.

Ever.

So not discussing the topic is always a completely acceptable option. But if you feel compelled by compassion, concern, or curiosity (and assuming your friend is open to talking) here are a few good questions to ask. I wish I had been able to think of any of these when I was on the asking side. (For some good tips about what to say to someone who’s been just diagnosed, read this post.)

  1. How are you? Seems simple enough. But it’s better than: are you okay? Because most cancer patients aren’t okay, by definition. They have cancer. “Are you okay“ asks for a yes or no answer and it’s just not simple.
  2. 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 — so it’s important to know what cancer type your friend may be facing. But there is no good kind of cancer.
  3. How’s Stacy? This only works if your friend has a significant other named Stacy. But a cancer diagnosis places a huge 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 question. If your friend’s significant other is not named Stacy, improvise.
  4. 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. One of these times, someone will say yes.
  5. Want to grab a beer?  Or coffee. Or Del’s Lemonade. Or a fruit smoothie. Boredom is anxiety’s playing partner. Just staying busy, I find, offers its own benefit in its ability to keep one from diving too deeply into the often overwhelming overload of information overload; but a beverage and the company of a friend makes it even more valuable.

    As I said, these questions and many others 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.

Michael Buller is director of Editorial and Creative Services at Dana-Farber, and currently a patient. 

23 comments

  1. Chris J says:

    How true this is. I always used to be at at loss of what to say to someone who I knew had cancer, you sort of feel awkward about saying anything. So when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer I was dreading meeting people because I just didn’t want them to feel at all awkward about saying anything to me. It’s expected that I will make a 100% recovery, but none the less to others they mostly see cancer as a death sentence. So I am usually the first person to talk about it and make people know that it’s OK to chat about it. One of the first things I did was to tell all my friends on Facebook. Since that moment I haven’t looked back. I’ve posted this article on Facebook too!Don’t think, ‘OMG he’s got the Big C, better not say anything’. One in 3 people will have some type of cancer during their lifetime, it’s not unusual, and more and more people are living with cancer and being cured and not dying, thanks to organizations that contribute to cancer research like Stand Up To Cancer and Cancer Research UK. Sadly it’s a very common disease. Talk about it, the more people that do then the more people will feel OK about giving to charities that are doing their best to make cancer history. Thanks!

    • Thanks for the comment Chris. I had some similar reactions. I like the idea of referring people to FB. I started blogging myself — first as a private therapy, then as a public forum (this post was adapted from a post that first appeared there) and it’s a great place for me to refer my friends who want to digest the news privately. You mjght find some topics interesting. It’s msbuller.blogspot.com if you are interested.

  2. Donnell says:

    As the longtime partner and (and finally, the spouse) of a D-F patient, this is probably the most helpful little post I’ve seen in years. Short, simple and right on target.

    One more thing: ASK these questions but more importantly LISTEN, instead of trying to figure out what to say next.

    • Great advice Donnell. Sometimes that’s all I need is someone to just listen!

    • HarveyB says:

      Listening is sure key, and don’t try and “fix it” with a million or even 1 “you should…” Maybe a “have you considered or talked to the doc about” would be ok …. but key is the listening.

      • Dana-Farber says:

        I agree Harvey. Men (at least this particular man) have a hard time not trying to jump into fix it mode. My cancer journey has brought out a little more empathy and listening skill, I think, but my wife is probably the better judge of that ;)

  3. Mary says:

    About #4: A lot of patients have a really hard time with “Can I do something?” They feel guilty saying yes and asking for something specific. And it’s much easier to say no-thank you – then the patient doesn’t have to THINK about all of the things that need to be done.

    One way around this is to ask the patient – would you like me to bring by some food this weekend? Is there anything you and/or the family would love to eat? Or you can say – I’d really like to come mow the lawn for you this weekend, would that be okay? Or you can say, “I’d like to host a benefit party for you. The money can go to the family or a charity you’d like to support. Would that be okay?” You can even offer to babysit or give a ride.

    The other thing you can do is figure out who is handling most of the daily tasks (rides, helping with kids, food) and offer to do one of the things above. And if no one is organizing offers of support from the community, offer to do it! A supportive community needs a leader and a calendar to help everyone do what will help the family the most when they need it the most.

  4. Mary – you are so right. I/we hate to impose. We’re fortunate in that our kids grandparents are close and they’ve been so, so helpful in picking up kids after school, taking them to activities. If I didn ‘t have the grandparents nearby, I know it would be very hard to me to ask my friends: “can you take the kids for the afternoon?” But it would be easier to agree to that if someone were to offer it specifically.

  5. Rob Tourville says:

    Great post Michae. And how extrordinary that you are reaching out to help others at this time. Our daughter recently completed a rigorous treatment protocol for AML at Children’s. You are right on the money. It can be overwhelming to think about all that needs to be done, and to delegate or ask for help. We we’re so appreciative of all the help and support, and really grateful when people simply saw, or anticipated a need and took it upon themselves to get it done, raking leaves, plowing snow, visiting, droping off food, a shoulder rub, or going out for lunch or a beer. Wishing you all the best on your healing journey.

  6. David Fraley says:

    This is a great article. I have been on both sides of this and as a cancer patient there is nothing better than someone willing to spend a few minutes listening and then saying ” I’m sending you good energy til you whip it. Cancer sucks!”

  7. Meredith says:

    Special man, excellent advice. Thank you, Michael, for sharing the wisdom of your journey with us!

    • Dana-Farber says:

      Hey Meredith:
      Thanks for the note! Glad you think it’s wisdom. Not everything that comes out of my mouth are nuggets, but it’s hard to go through the journey without picking up something.
      -michael

  8. Great suggestionssusan says:

    Great suggestions. I recall a friend undergoing chemo relating that, “Cancer is not so bad, but people can really suck.” As you pointed out, the discomfort of others can lead to comments which can increase the pain. I am sure I am not alone in having had someone tell me how lucky I was to be alive regardless of the misery or disfigurement of the treatment involved. There may come a time when a person with cancer feels lucky, but it’s hardly a prevailing emotion and gratitude may be in short supply as well. # 6 If you ask a patient with cancer how they are, be prepared to hear the truth without telling them how they should feel. It is difficult enough to be dealing with the illness without having to be responsible for making others feel comfortable by being “okay, lucky or grateful.” My experience at DF has been that from the moment the valet takes my car until I am with the doctor, that everyone I meet approaches me with kindness and respectful positivity.

    • Dana-Farber says:

      Thanks for the comment! I agree 100%. You should never be supposed to feel any certain way. You feel what you feel and you go from there — that’s been hard for me to accept but it’s s truth. Another one is that cancer affects everyone so it may not be that people suck, so to speak, but just that they have a hard time dealing with the cancer dx of a friend and in their attempt to help, only make things worse. Part of it seems to me is just a generational learning curve. It’s only been what, maybe 30 or so years that we actively talk about cancer as cancer and not “the big C” or “cancer” with a whisper. As we talk more about it, maybe friends and family will be able to learn as we do.

      I also agree with your comments about DF, even if I’m doubly biased. Such great understanding, expertise, compassion and respect just emanating from that place. I feel infinitely lucky to be treated there and honored to work there.

      Thanks for the comment and best of luck,
      Michael

  9. lorraine says:

    My sister had her ca treated at dana farber. Everyone from the door man up to the drs treated her and the family with respect and dignity. All the best to you michael and your family.

  10. Helen Carroll says:

    I was recently diagnosed with Breast Cancer, I had it removed on Feb 6th and now I am waiting for the results to see if I will need Radiation. My Husband recently had Prostate Cancer and is still having problems from that.His surgery was at Brighams his Dr. from Dana Farber. I never knew how SCARY the word Cancer was until it was said to me. My cancer was very small and found on a routine Mammogram, Thank God for those. The Dr told me I needed a biopsy but not to worry because 80 percent were benign. So even though DCIS was small and removed I will be contacting Dana Farber for a second opinion.One of our Daughters had Ovarian Cancer 20 yrs ago she went to a GYN in Chelmsford when I asked him what Her treatment would be he said nothing he got it all. We took her to Dr Niloff at Dana Farber and he said all that Dr did was scoop the Cancer out and she still had the seedlings in her. He removed an Ovary and Tube and saved her life. She is a Nurse, married has 2 beautiful children Thanks to Dana Farber.

  11. Lynn Feingold says:

    I’m going for my final radiation treatment today for breast cancer. I’m done with chemo, surgery and now radiation! Michael, your post was right-on-target. Some people really didn’t know what to say when I told them that I had cancer. It’s good to reach out and give them a clue. I live very independently but I’m fortunate to have many friends who insisted upon helping me (because I find it just that hard to ask for help!) If it were not for the way that they put it, such as “I’m going to drop off a casserole today at your doorstep – it will be in a thermos bag so whenever you can retrieve it, that will be fine.” You’re right, too, that every syllable of support that was uttered, every card, every email, every voicemail, built me up every day and helped me carry on. Michael, I wish you courage and strength and hope. CARRY ON! – Lynn

  12. Hi Lynn
    Thanks so much for the comment and CONGRATULATIONS on your last rad treatment. It’s amazing to feel the support of friends and family that you didn’t even know was there (or knew, but didn’t need). Wishing you all the best!
    –michael

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