'How You Doin'?' Can Be a Tricky Question to Ask Someone With Cancer


When I was in the throes of cancer, I didn't know how to answer well-meaning people who asked, "How you doin'?"

How you doing? I know grammatically it’s not the correct way to make that statement. It became a popular phrase in the mid 1990s because of the television series “Friends.”

I remember being young, single and wishing I had the charisma of the character Joey from that TV show. I know it’s silly, but generally the responses I got were not very truthful and I was just trying to impress the person I was speaking to at the moment. Namely my girlfriend that I was dating at the time, and I guess she saw past my facade. For some reason she agreed to marry me a few months later and we've been together 30 years.

Shortly after we got married, I had a scare with testicular cancer, and I quickly avoided anyone asking me that question. I just got tired of explaining the fear and anxiety I was feeling at the time. My wife and I had not gotten back the test results or the pathology from surgery I had undergone at the time to see if I had cancer. I just felt very misunderstood by anyone other than my wife at the time.

The results did come back negative for cancer at the time, but the experience did give me a better understanding of how responding to that simple question can be paralyzing for so many people affected by cancer.

A few years later, I would face this similar question as a caregiver for my dad battling prostate cancer. He had a long road that would eventually lead him to hospice care in the end. I never had to ask him how he was doing because it was always right in front of me. I could tell by the look on his face how he felt or would respond.

I quickly focused more on how I could help him and less on how he felt during the ordeal he was facing. He told me he hated it when doctors would come in the room and ask him how he was doing. He would say to me, “Can’t they tell how I’m doing? Aren't they doctors?”

He would eventually ask me to take over and respond to the doctors on his behalf. I learned through that experience to focus on how my dad was feeling and just listen to him. The greatest and most caring thing I could do for him was to be in the moment with him. At that moment I didn’t understand what he was facing, but this would give me a greater understanding of the path of a caregiver as I faced becoming a cancer patient myself in the not-so-distant future.

A couple of years later when I was 50 years old, I would be faced with a stage 3b colorectal cancer diagnosis after a routine colonoscopy. My GI doctor who performed my procedure didn't ask how I was doing nor how I felt about being diagnosed with cancer. He would say three simple words to me that day that would change my cancer journey immensely at the time. Those three words were “I got you,” as he laid out a plan of action for me.

He had already contacted my colorectal cancer surgeon and my new oncologist that day. His response to my diagnosis would completely change how I saw my cancer. and in many ways, how I supported others in the cancer space as an advocate many years later.

I left my doctor’s office that day with a lot of worry about an unclear future with my cancer diagnosis, but I did have the confidence that we had a clear plan going forward with my disease. How my doctor approached me about my cancer made a huge difference in how I saw myself as a patient.

It’s something I would have to remember in the months ahead as I face the barrage of well-meaning people who would ask me how I’m doing on any given day. People generally mean well as they face the idea that they could be diagnosed with cancer themselves. It’s a fact that one out of two people may be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. That was a fact that scared me before I was diagnosed with cancer myself.

So next time instead of asking a cancer patient “How you doing?” Just ask “How can I help you?” Sometimes they just need you to be in that moment with them. Just reach out a hand and tell them that “I got you and I’m here for you.” Those are the people who offered me the most support as a cancer patient. Now that I’m a five-year survivor of cancer I look for ways to offer that same support every day. There are days we all need each other in the fight. We cannot let the fear of cancer prevent us from offering help to one another.

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