'How Do You Really Feel?': A Question to Ask Cancer Survivors

August 13, 2019

A survivor makes some suggestions on how to approach people battling a loss or serious illness.

I learned a long time ago whenever someone had a tragedy happen — such as a loss of a loved one – to say less rather than more. A platitude like “This is God’s will,” or “There is a reason for everything that happens,” is just not what the person needs to hear. I am even careful about saying; “It will be OK.” What if it is not?

“I am here for you and will talk whenever you are ready,” seems to help. “How can I help, or what do you need?” is another positive thing to say.

After a friend was recently diagnosed with the dreaded “C-word” and said on social media how angry she was, I told her she had every right to be angry. She has spent years taking care of a sick husband and now she is ill. She should be angry at this insidious horrible disease. And anger does keep us going and determined to fight! I told her I was here when she is ready to talk about it.

There is something else I often ask after things settle down somewhat. “How do you really feel?” This gives people permission to be honest if they choose and they do not have to cover up or put on a facade.

After nine years of battling cancer, I struggle with questions from friends and family all the time. I do not want to burden people, upset people or make them feel bad. My mother was in terrible pain the last several years of her life, and would say she would not tell others, because all it does is make them feel bad too. She was a stoic and amazing person.

Rarely do I discuss how losing so much more of my hearing has isolated me. I do not like to admit the amount of fatigue I experience where I can barely move. I do not wish to describe the depression that covers me like a blanket as I contemplate the future. Or mention the anxiety I feel as I am running out of chemotherapies that will work. I do not wish to describe the different side effects of chemo such as constant diarrhea, frequent insomnia, muscle aches and neuropathy, because so many people have it much worse. Everyone has their own problems and they do not need to hear all of mine.

If people ask how I am I will say something innocuous like, “I am tired, but good.” Or “I am OK — this is a good day.” Rarely does anyone ask me how I really feel but I would probably tell them.

I am very fortunate to have a sister and a couple of close friend who I can call and ask if we can talk. Then we sit down and I will pour out my frustrations. I know they will not judge me and not attempt to placate me.

I suspect most cancer survivors do what I do. We have the public facade and the private one. And this is for all the losses in our lives, not just cancer. That is fine but in my humble opinion, we need to be sure we express ourselves and say how we really feel once in a while. It is healthy and helps us.

If you are a friend, a relative or a caregiver you may want to try this one question — “How do you really feel?” It is up to the survivor to choose to put up a façade or to be honest. It is their choice and you may have just made their world a whole lot better.


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