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. 

Anything else. 


19 Responses to Scenario

  1. Joanna says:

    Ack, WM, I am sorry her question brought you to the late-night place you obviously wish to avoid lamenting. Surely she meant well; however, it pains me when I hear that people ask such uncouthe questions. I am a ‘foot in mouther’ by nature; I never mean ill, ever and always have conversation remorse, hoping I never offend. But yikes, one would think she actually thought before opening her mouth to you. Hugs, hugs. My prayers for you every day are that indeed all these drugs are working to fight this thing; your spirit, to me, shows that they are. Peaceful sleep to you tonight…

  2. magnetobold says:

    Hopefully this woman is the sort that would be beating herself up afterwards for her insensitivity. Sometimes people say the weirdest things when faced with a delicate situation. When people I haven’t seen in years hear of or meet my son with Autism they come out with the most jaw dropping comments. I have learnt to just let it slide and realise that they are uncomfortable. The worst ones have been ‘Oh that’s worse than your kid dying’ or ‘Well aren’t you lucky to have a little Rainman’ sigh.
    I choose to focus on his good points – and there are many. That is how I cope, just change the subject.
    Perhaps you could ponder a while what you think would be the best thing to say to an acquaintance when in this situation? I would really appreciate something to say while getting over the initial shock. I tend to ask ‘How are you?’ which in retrospect could be equally offensive.

  3. BetteJo says:

    Wow. I am always amazed by people. I subscribe to the theory that if you don’t know what to say – less is usually better. But if you’re only going to ask one question – I’d say that wasn’t the right now. E-e-w-w.
    Hope you’re feeling well today and sleeping well tonight. And just so you know – I truly appreciate your sharing your story with all of us, it’s an incredibly brave thing to do.

  4. Robin says:

    That was stunningly insensitive. I’m sorry you had to go through it.

  5. Ouch! What was she thinking? I agree with the commenter who wrote that less is more in that type of situation.

    I’m sorry.

  6. Amy says:

    I have chronic foot-in-mouth disease, too. It’s so bad that it carries over to the physical. For example, if my husband says, “Gee, my elbow really hurts,” within 1 hour I will have hit it somehow, even if I haven’t touched his elbow in 2 years. It’s a gift.

    The problem with the English language is that there are several occasions, including when you run into someone who is battling a serious disease, where the words just fail. You can choose to either sound insensitive, or sound like a Hallmark card and risk being perceived as insincere and cheesey. It’s gotten worse as religion has fallen out of favor, because you can’t say, “I’m praying for you,” to anyone without running the risk of offending them (and that can sound insincere, too). “God bless you,” sounds condescending, and can offend in the same way as, “I’m praying for you,” but “spiritual” alternatives, like, “I’m sending you positive energy,” are, again, cheesy.

    Even, “How are you?” has become a throwaway phrase – so much so that we reflexively answer “fine,” and no information is transmitted at all. If you really want to know how someone is, you have to say, “No, really, how are you?” a second time.

    A lot of times I’ll just resort to, “I don’t know what to say,” with a self-deprecating laugh and a sincere, “I’ve been thinking a lot about you.” But even that makes me sound like a stalker.

    Don’t blame your friend. Blame the English language for completely failing us in this department.

  7. b*babbler says:

    I’m so sorry. The only comfort and reassurance you should search for is for yourself, and not for those asking impertinent, intrusive, insensitive questions during casual meetings.

  8. binky says:

    You have such a way of telling a story in a sensitive and clear way. I know most of us have stuck our feet in our mouths many times and can learn from this.

  9. amanda says:

    Good lord. Let me just tell you that since people have found out that I am expecting they seemed frenzied to share with me the stories they know of still births, miscarriages and tragic pre-term nightmares. I know it’s apples and oranges, but the human knack for social blunders simply knows no bounds.

  10. Katherine says:

    It’s hard to be in a position like that. You want to be happy and cheerful and be a good example. You want to “deserve” to get better (I don’t know if that makes sense but it is the best way to describe how I felt sometimes)and be “the perfect chemo patient”. You want to be strong enough to be honest. There is so much you’re dealing with right now. Don’t you dare feel bad about getting frustrated with questions like that! It’s completely natural and you’re doing great. Be proud of yourself.

  11. canape says:

    That is the question of the moment, isn’t it? We would all like to know the answer – you most of all would like to know the answer to.

    I’m glad you pointed out that it isn’t the question to verbalize though. There are probably a lot of people out there who hadn’t realized how it makes the other person feel.

  12. whymommy says:

    It kept me up. All. Night. And this was two days after it happened! I know it wasn’t meant to be ugly on purpose … but it’s a really hard question to hear.

    People might want to say instead “It must be hard to go through treatment,” or “I hope it’s not too hard on you,” or just make a statement instead of a question — “I really hope it’s working.”

    Or just compliment her on her shoes.

  13. Ally says:

    WM, I appreciated this post because it was so honest, and truly might help someone avoid putting their foot in their mouth like you ex-coworker did. I think people get so stimied they just don’t know what to say, and they forget to think about how their question might impact you. I’m sorry that this happened to you, and I really am thankful for the reminder that less is more in these situations. I’m still praying for you, and wishing you the best, each day.

  14. Meleah says:

    I just wanted to say thanks. I think this is a post of very good advice. I would never ask “Is it working?” but sometimes you just don’t know what to say. I also love the follow up post to this one, because it really does help to have someone who is going through this tell you how to best help them. So, to sum up…thanks for writing this and thank you for being so insightful.

  15. magnetobold says:

    You said:
    ‘Or just compliment her on her shoes.’
    Oh how that made me laugh! I am shoe obsessed and that would be probably the first thing I would notice anyway!

    I brought up your post today at work. We have a couple of people battling various conditions there and it was great for us to all chat about it. Again WM you are educating and enlightening people all over the world.
    For that we thank you….. again.

  16. Jacquie says:

    WM I love how you “shoot straight from the hip”. I love your honesty and how you share it so freely with us.

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  18. Jusice Jones says:

    Why do people say such dumb things? Sometimes I am so taken aback by a dumb question that I actually answer because I’m just so surprised.
    Sorry you had to go through that!

  19. bitsy parker says:

    Next you’re thinking and worrying in the middle of night,take the night off.I’ve got you covered. Let me do the worrying for you tonight. Just relax. I’m an excellent worrier. Close your eyes and go to sleep. Imagine transferring all the worry for one shift.


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