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A Question Not to Ask a Friend with Cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at bobriter@gmail.com.

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

A Question Not to Ask a Friend with Cancer

I sometimes write about the goofy things that people say to individuals who have been diagnosed with cancer. In almost every case, the person means well and just gets tongue-tied trying to find the right words. Those of us with cancer know that others stumble for words, and we recognize the kindness and concern that was intended.

But a client recently recounted a question posed to her that caused my jaw to drop open.

One of her acquaintances asked, “What’s your prognosis?”

The woman stammered that no one really knows and that every situation is different. I would have been tempted to shout, “ARE YOU CRAZY? WHY IS MY PROGNOSIS ANY OF YOUR BUSINESS?” The client thought of a proper rejoinder the next day: “My brain is fuzzy because I’ve had surgery and chemotherapy. What’s your excuse for being so nosy and inappropriate?”

Her initial answer was also correct. No one – including the doctors – are sure about your prognosis. They can provide statistics, but not absolutes.

And many patients don’t know nor do they want to know their prognosis. If they do know, they will share it selectively with whom they choose at the appropriate time. I can say with some confidence that this rarely happens at the gym, at the supermarket, or over snacks at a party.

If your friend has cancer, it’s fine to ask how they’re doing, but please let them take the lead in choosing what they wish to discuss.


Original publication date: January 25, 2014

Click here to see all of Bob’s columns

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