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How You Look And How You Feel

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.

Cancer is a weird disease because you can have it and not be sick. Or you can look pretty good when you are sick. This is confusing for our friends who are trying to say or do the right thing. It can be just as confusing for those of us with cancer.

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I didn’t feel sick at all. It was odd to plan surgery and chemotherapy when I felt in perfect health.

But when I was going through chemotherapy a few months later, I became irritated when people told me that I looked good. I didn’t feel so good, and I wanted people to somehow recognize that. Of course, I didn’t want people to tell me that I looked like crap, either.

So, what should friends and family say to be helpful? I’ve brought this up at support groups and there’s never a consensus. Everyone seems to have a different opinion. In fact, most everyone seems to have more than one opinion, and those opinions aren’t necessarily consistent or rational.

How can friends know what to say if those of us with cancer don’t know what we want to hear?

But then I heard a colleague, Kerry Quinn, gently ask a patient, “Do you feel as good as you look?”

I realized that this was a perfect question because it doesn’t assume anything. It simply asks the patient if how they feel on the inside matches how they look on the outside.

When asked, patients usually pause and reflect. And then they begin to talk.

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Click here to see all of Bob’s Columns

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