The Look People Give You

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

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 woman recently diagnosed with cancer said to me, “I wish you would tell people not to give me that look.”

“What look?” I asked.

“The pity puss.” (At first I thought she said “platypus,” which I faintly recalled as being a weird-looking animal, and I wondered why on earth people were making platypus faces at her.)

Noting my momentary confusion, she continued, “Pity puss. Once I got diagnosed with cancer, people started looking at me as though I was a completely different person.”

I knew the look she was referring to. When I was going through cancer treatment, people would look at me with solemn expressions and tilted heads as if they were looking deep into my soul. That look was always unsettling, especially when I was trying to eat lunch.

I asked other people with cancer if they’ve seen that look.

One woman told me that she knows the look, but it doesn’t bother her because she knows it’s coming from a place of caring. “Of course we have a list of things we want people to say or do, but cancer is emotionally loaded and scary. The solemn faces, teary eyeballs, and spiels about being brave aren’t perfect gestures, but they show concern.”

Another told me that she also knows the look, but what bothers her even more is the non-look. “Some people who used to make eye contact with me when saying ‘good morning’ now avert their eyes and hurry away fearing that a conversation might take place.”

Once you’ve had cancer, you don’t give “that look” when meeting someone else with cancer. One nurse told me, “It’s like you guys with cancer have your own secret society.” She’s right. That’s why spending time with others with cancer can be relaxing-because cancer isn’t an elephant in the room. If people want to talk about cancer, fine. If people don’t want to talk about cancer, that’s fine too.

As I write this, I’m afraid that I am making you so paranoid of making the wrong face or saying the wrong thing that your head might explode when encountering someone with cancer. Don’t worry. What’s in your heart is far more important than what you say or the expression on your face.

The most important lesson is to remember that your friend who now has cancer is the same person she was before she had cancer. If she liked hugs before, she’ll like them now. If she was a private person before, she’ll be a private person now.

If you’re not sure what to say when you first talk with her after she’s been diagnosed, try, “I’m so sorry.”

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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