Day 11: The importance of open-ended questions in cancer and friendship

January 11th, 2013 § 9 comments

One of the ways you can be a good friend to someone going through a difficult time is to use open-ended questions. In this way, you are not projecting your own feelings onto them; neither are you assuming what feelings they are having. Trust me: they’ll appreciate it.


There are ways in which I will never make you as readers understand what it’s like to have cancer if you haven’t. However, part of the reason I write this blog is to try to explain some of the cancer patient “mentality” (if you’ll accept such a generalization) to those of you who haven’t had cancer. To that end, you can hopefully be better friends, partners, spouses, sons, and daughters. There are things I didn’t know before I had cancer that I wish I had understood.

It’s not that I am special.
It’s not that I am so smart.

It’s that I have been there.
Hopefully sooner than you have.

And so I am reporting back from the field. To try to help you. Prepare you. Because if there is one thing I know, one thing I know for sure: you will know someone. It might be your friend. Your parent. Your child. Or even yourself. Maybe you already know someone. But one thing is for sure: you will know someone who gets cancer. And you know what? You already know me.

One of the ways your life changes when you have had cancer is that you begin to understand the phrase “It’s never over” in a whole new way.

As soon as you hear the three words, “You have cancer” your life changes. From the time you hear those words everything is different. You now have a history of cancer — even if it’s a cancer that can be removed and you don’t need any other treatment. It is now a history that puts you at risk. Now every medical problem, every medical history you give, every question mark, every medical mystery must be filtered through the lens of a history of cancer.

A woman I know from college was writing a brief note to me by email to thank me for something nice I’d done. The last part said, “You must be on top of the world (or close to it).”

My reaction? First I burst out in laughter.
Ah, the naiveté of the healthy!
On top of the world! Ha!

Then it actually got me riled up.
How dare she think it was over.

Then I got angry at myself for lashing out.
I became contrite.
Why should she know better?
How could she know better?

It isn’t fair to expect people to know better.
Only once you know better can you do better.
If she only knew.

What was I going to do?
Write back and explain to her the error in her thinking?
Should I write back and say:
I counted every day, every hour, every minute, every second to be “done.” But when each thing was “done” there was always something else I was counting toward. Always something else looming. I’m never “done.” It’s never “done.” It’s never “over.”

The language we use reveals a lot.
When someone says,
“You must be on top of the world,”
that means:
“You should be”
“You ought to be”
“I expect you to be.”

For someone like me, if I don’t feel like that it’s hard.
I get angry. I want to say all of the reasons why that’s not realistic– why that’s wrong. Why that’s precisely what I’m not feeling.

But then, when my anger cools, I take that and turn it inward. And all I feel is disappointment. Disappointment in myself. Maybe I should feel like that. Maybe I really should feel on top of the world. The fact that I don’t means I’m not as far through this thing as I thought. It reminds me I’ve still got a lot of work to do.

But I think the point remains: just surviving cancer isn’t necessarily enough. It’s not enough to make you feel on top of the world.

You can help those who have had cancer by not making the leap that just because they have lived through this round that they have “won”; don’t assume that they will necessarily be ecstatic, “done,” and ready to move on.

Rather than telling people what they “must” feel, we all can be better friends and listeners by asking questions rather than making statements.

Rather than saying “you must feel on top of the world” think of the difference it would have made if my friend had said, “Now that your treatment and surgeries are over, how do you feel?”

An open-ended question is always a safe conversation starter. I’m going to try it more often in my everyday life; I hope you will too. My wish is that it begins some good conversations between you and someone you care about.

§ 9 Responses to Day 11: The importance of open-ended questions in cancer and friendship"

  • Paula says:

    When I first had cancer (but didn’t know it yet), I happened to see an interview on TV with Robert Urich, an actor I had unsecretly loved since I was a child. I was deeply moved and upset by the interview, even though he was (at that time) doing really well and responding positively to treatment. (I’ve never known if these feelings were some unconscious connection because I, too, had cancer… or if it was that I feared this disease would end up killing an actor whom I loved so much.) Anyway, when just after that interview I was diagnosed with cancer, I would closely follow articles and interviews with Robert Urich– considering him almost like an accomplice (for lack of a better word) to this strange and unexpected time in my life. He had a really sweet, honest, open way of communicating that was realistic but hopeful. I was a young mother with a baby I adored; and he, too, was focused on the love he felt for his children.

    We both happened to go into remission at about the same time; and I will never forget watching him in a TV interview with Peter Snyder late one night. At some point, Snyder said, “So you’re cured now, right?” I felt my entire body shudder.

    Articulating the reaction I, myself, had just experienced, Urich laughed nervously and responded (something like): “In my world, we never use those words ‘I’ve been cured.’ It’s like tempting the fates.'”

    Snyder looked confused. “But it’s gone, right? You’re cancer-free!”

    Urich gently explained, “Yes, I’m doing well, and I am so happy and grateful about that. But it’s not over.” Peter Snyder didn’t seem to understand. (Sadly, he, himself, died of cancer a few years later.)

    Anyway, I always remembered that interview and how Robert Urich was able to convey a feeling that most people having never had cancer can’t quite grasp. He didn’t reveal any karmic foreshadow of the future that his cancer would come back (which it did)– just that it could; and once you’ve had it happen, that reality becomes a part of who you are and how you view life.

    But no one (until now) that I’ve ever told this story to really got it. It even took me a minute to realize what it was that you were referring to in this post. Once again, thank you, Lisa. You have an incredible, intuitive ability to take ideas and images mulling around in our minds and transform them into understood, concrete revelations that help us to move forward.

  • dglassme says:

    Must be where “Does that make sense?” comes from, thanx for sharing. D

  • Maria Fowler says:

    Paula, terrific story it articulates exactly how many of us feel.

    Lisa, this reminds me of the “you look good.” piece. These are two of my biggest irritants. Like you, however, I always end up upset with myself because I know when friends and coworkers are saying I look good or asking if I am cured, they are really trying to be supportive. How do you feel IS a better question but even that one always brings hesitation on my part. I wonder if they really want to hear how I feel and if I should tell them. I rarely do.

  • Katherine C. James says:

    Well said. I think this is an important piece. I’m glad you chose to repost it. I believe telling people how they *must* feel, out of nervousness or insensitivity, never really works for any of us. I’d love it if we took your suggestion to heart for all of us at all times. I’d love an entire world of, “Hello, I care about you,” (or, “I love you “), “how do you feel?”

  • Kim says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Lisa. Let us free each other with our thoughts, words and actions.

  • Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! YES!

  • Susan Bisbee says:

    Thank you once again. Luckily my boyfriend always asks me how I am feeling and doesn’t judge my responses or actions. He gets frustrated when other loved ones in my life don’t understand what this life is all about but he is working on it. Compassion isn’t difficult to practice and in the end we are all happier for it.

  • Anonymous says:

    I really tried to get by without asking for help – and the only time I asked my mother in law to wash my hair – she just could not see why – me with a portovac post reconstruction.Really upset me.

  • […] finally, another beautiful post/poem from blogger Lisa Bonchek Adams with a powerful reminder that the way we phrase our questions can affect how our support is […]

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