If, one day, you happen to run into a former co-worker who you haven’t seen in months or years, and you have just heard that she is undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer, it is NOT in the best of taste to look at her bald head and ask bluntly,
Is it working?
And wait for an answer.
If you must know, the bald head means that the chemotherapy is attacking her body. The chemicals are killing her cells. Whether or not the chemicals are working much faster on the cancer (as they should), whether they’re overtaking it (as you hope), or whether that changes her prognosis at all are not easily known.
But you can be sure that she’s wondered herself.
And she probably doesn’t know what to tell you, here, on the street, as you wait for an answer. She probably doesn’t want to sound too falsely chipper or too honestly uncertain. Quite possibly, she doesn’t want to be really honest with you like she is with herself in the middle of the night either.
She knows you mean well.
But there’s no good answer to this question. There’s no way of knowing that it’s working and it will all be okay in the morning, as we reassure a child who wakes up from a nightmare screaming in a cold sweat. There’s no absolutes once you have cancer and you’re fighting it with every ounce of your being, and yet wondering some days what that really means and how it’s going in there. There’s no sure comfort for acquaintances and former co-workers, much less the friends and family that are there every day, that see the bad days and see the good, and hope each day that the next one will be better.
There’s no assurance that when we wake up tomorrow, there will be no monsters under this bed in the light of day.
And so, if you see a woman you used to know, and she has a chemo-bald head and looks a little tired, you might want to skip asking her if it’s working or not. Just smile. Say hello. Tell her you’re pulling for her. And if the conversation lags, please resist the urge to ask her if she’s still dying or not. Just say something else.