Asking Questions to Cancer Patients

Things People Say

Cancer. It seems to come with a sign over your head: Ask Me Questions! That’s great. It means people aren’t afraid like they used to be. —But theirs a downside. Some people ask questions that are none of their business, and in fact, rude. The barrier of being a stranger seems to vanish, and your personal life becomes fair game for their inquiring mind. If this happens to you, set your boundaries, especially if you’re low on energy.

When I was bald and wearing a scarf, I ran into a neighbor of mine. She has a developmental disability. She hadn’t seen me since I’d lost my hair, and knew nothing about my having cancer. After a short chat, she said, “What’s up with?” —pointing to her head. I told her I had cancer.

A few weeks later she told me she was having a rough day at school. “It would make you pull your hair out! —Well, not you; you don’t have any hair.” I had to laugh, mainly because it wasn’t meant to be edgy and she continued right on with her story.

Then there were the stupid comments from people who function at higher levels. These comments came from complete strangers. This tells me one very important thing: The people with whom I associate are intelligent and perceptive.

“Were you shocked when you were diagnosed?” If I hadn’t been so shocked when I was asked this from a man I’d never met before, I may have said, “Nope. It was on my calendar. Cancer is such an inconvenience when it comes unexpectedly.” I was asked the exact same question by another man who lived in my apartment complex at the time. Perhaps these men where trying to express some empathy. Maybe they had never known anyone with cancer. The answer is yes. Don’t ask it.

Women aren’t immune from this, either. I’d usually get—with little discussion beforehand, “What kind of cancer?” I don’t know you. Why does the type of my cancer matter? One time, I did in fact step back when a woman I didn’t know who asked me how my cancer was discovered. “Did you, or did your doctor discover it?” I must have worn my thought on my face. She said, “I’m a nurse.” I replied, “Not mine.” (Nor was she an oncology nurse.)

Then there are the health tips you may get from well-meaning, but uninformed people (or at least uninformed from sources I’d accept as valid information.) I don’t care how marvelous they tell you hydrogen peroxide is, do not drink it, or bathe in it. It will not cure or prevent cancer. When there is a cure for cancer, it will be on front page news, radio, and T.V.

For me, it largely depends on the person asking the questions, and how they ask them. If someone is genuinely wanting to be educated, I’ll answer anything. How about you? What strange questions or comments did you/do you get? How do you feel about getting those questions?


4 thoughts on “Asking Questions to Cancer Patients

  1. One thing that always gets me is when people ask me, “How did you get it?” I’m 22 and I don’t drink or smoke. I just find it to be an odd question, because most people don’t really know how they got it.

    • Lots of folks are sleep walking through life. They don’t mean to be rude or pry, but in their ignorance they ask and say some really wild things. People want a quick answer in a neat box. They want to be told it’s okay – for you, and for them. Still, it’s hard to educate them when you’re tired and not feeling well, or just not wanting to talk about it. You could always answer, “By asking too many questions” (It will stop further questions!) Continue with your healthy lifestyle; be happy. Thanks for checking in and leaving a comment.

  2. The one I really loved was, “You’re so young – what did you do to get the cancer?” What? Are you serious? “Well, I was 40 pounds overweight and enjoyed a cocktail in the evenings just like you.” Eventually, I got over the anger at ignorance and started having fun with it…ask a silly question and ya get a silly answer. I think there are a few people out there operating on the kooky misinformation I made up on the spot.

    • Yes! As much as I love to educate people, some beg for an answer just as bizarre as their question. Sometimes I need to remind myself: Keep it light and polite.

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