Jane Brody in The New York Times:
What do you think is the most commonly asked question of a person who has, or has had, cancer? If you guessed, “How are you?” you got it right. But as caring as those words may seem, they are often not helpful and may even be harmful. At a celebratory family gathering a year after my own cancer treatment, a distant relative asked me just that. I answered, “I’m fine.” She then pressed, “How are you really?” “Really” I was fine, I told her. But what if I hadn’t been? Would I have wanted to launch into a description of bad medical news at what was supposed to be a fun event? Would I have wanted even to be reminded of a bout with cancer? Although my relative undoubtedly meant well, the way her concern was expressed struck me as intrusive. A diagnosis of cancer can tie the tongues of friends and family members or prompt them to utter inappropriate, albeit well-meaning, comments. Some who don’t know what to say simply avoid the cancer patient altogether, an act that can be more painful than if they said or did the wrong thing.
…Another author of very helpful books on living with cancer is Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, who has had a recurring cancer for more than two decades. She suggests that people offer specific ways they can help. For example, they may say they can shop for groceries, care for children, take the dog for a run, or accompany the patient to the doctor, and then be sure to follow through with the offer. Many people now use online sites like caringbridge.org to keep people up to date on their health and needs or organizing platforms such as mealtrain.com or lotsahelpinghands.com to ask for specific help. Dr. Harpham said she came to dread the query “How are you?” because “no matter how it was intended, being asked ‘How are you?’ rattled my heightened sense of vulnerability. I found myself consoling those who asked and then fighting the contagion of grief and fear. Even when the news was good, I didn’t have the energy to include all the people who wanted updates.”