On cancer and the holidays: "You look great"

“'You look good,' they say. This a compliment. Sometimes they say, “You don’t look sick at all. You’d never know.' That is shorthand for, 'You don’t look like you’re dying but we know you are.'” Lisa Bonchek Adams, who has metastatic breast cancer, writes about what it's like to have cancer and deal with relatives and friends who say the wrong things during the holidays.


  1. Thanks for posting this Xeni. It’s quite good. All my best to Lisa, who is struggling with this.

    We just found out my dad has lung cancer, and it’s apparently spread pretty far. We saw him on Christmas, before he found out about the spread, so he was somewhat upbeat, though he looked far older then he ever has (and much more like his father than I’d ever seen him look).  The next day he found out it had spread and they had him start radiation immediately and for the next few weeks.  I had two aunts (on that side) who survived breast cancer recently, so we were optimistic when he was first diagnosed, but you can never tell with cancer… :-(   

    Hope you are doing well…

  2. I had my cancerous prostate removed the day after Christmas.  For me, though, they got it early…I think…(pathology not back yet), and the prospect of 20-30 more years of life vs. my dad’s shortened life for the same cancer is the greatest gift I will ever recieve.

  3. “…writes about what it’s like to have cancer and deal with relatives and friends who say the wrong things during the holidays.”

    That’s not really what she’s writing about in this blog post.

  4. So, as someone who often lacks tact and “emotional intelligence” and always feels horrible about it after realizing I’ve said something insensitive like the examples mentioned above, even if said without malice but rather with possibly misguided sincerity, it would be very nice to know what and how it should be expressed when I see someone I care about who is actually looking good despite battling a terrifying disease like cancer.

    1. What would you talk to them about if you didn’t know they were battling a major disease/disorder?  Talk about that.

      This business of commenting on someone’s physical appearance first (especially if the person in question is female) is not sacrosanct.  You really can start a conversation talking about something else.

      A side point: you don’t know if they’ve outed themselves to everyone, so referencing their medical status (even obliquely) if there is anyone else around is rude.

  5. I got a lot of that.  “Your color is so good!”  I got tired of hearing it before people got tired of saying it, but they did eventually get over the fact that I’m still here.

  6. My Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and passed away July of this year.  In response to Ms. Adam’s dealings, people would say the exact same things to my Mom, but what helped tremendously was the fact that both her and I were always completely honest with each other about her cancer and the progression of said cancer.  I’ve equated it to this… People in society have social norms most feel they must adhere to, in this case telling you “You don’t even look like you have cancer”, and etc. I dealt with those same social interactions during my Mom’s funeral, everyone was very kind and expressed how sorry they were, while I was expected to talk about my Mom’s recent passing to over 70 different people, even though it was the last f**king thing I wanted to hear and do, at the time I wanted to be alone with no interruptions. So essentially what I’m getting at is this, if you have that one person you can confide in, it keeps your day to day based in reality, and in my Mom’s and my case, both of us formed a bond we’d never had in the past.  The experience for me was extremely sobering, but I look back on it with fond memories given the situation. I wish you all the best.  Take care of yourself Ms. Adams.


  7. These interactions affect everyone who has an “invisible” illness. Responding to “You look so good!” and answering the question “How Are You?” are difficult. I have Central Pain Syndrome and made this video about confronting these issues: http://youtu.be/h54Q5AQJ-Ss

    1. I have Ehlers-Danlos. We often look younger and healthier than other people our age, despite pain and fatigue problems. People think that it’s some made-up disease that I heard about on a local cable access show.

      On the other hand, when I used to be really thin, I had a couple of friends with whom I would always have the same conversation.
      “How are you?”
      “Really? Are you suuuure?”

      I was tempted to ask them what they thought I was dying from, although being in San Francisco in the 1980s, I already knew the answer.

  8. I recall an article from the 90’s, by a woman going thru breast cancer treatment.  One of her friends expressed jealousy over the woman’s loss of 20 pounds while going thru chemo.

    A few years after that, I decided to do something about my own weight, and managed to lose 25 pounds in four months.  I was still working as a letter carrier then, and near the end of those months one of my customers who saw me regularly asked, cautiously, “You, uhh, don’t have… cancer, do you?”

  9. I had been away from Delhi for almost a year and the old jeweler Sundar Nagar, whom I found putting together a chain of fragrant jasmine flowers to be worn by the image of Krishna, as I walked into his shop, asked me what had happened to me.
    “I’ve been around hospitals. I have cancer”, I told him, like I would not have done with anyone else.
    “It must have been the most divine time of your life,” he replied with absolute naturalness.
    Yes, it had been. But how could he know?
    “Don’t you know the story of that Muslim who, expelled from the mosque, tumbled down the steps?”
    “No, I do not know it.”
    “Every step he hit was extremely painful, and so he thought of God. But when he finally reached the bottom of the stairs he was sorry that there were no more steps. I guess the same has happened to you.”

    (from Tiziano Terzani’s “Un altro giro di giostra”)

  10. Gah! Not bad as Tom Wayman derivatives go. I looked long enough to find some aspects and visages I found pretty; damn your flatland low-arcing cares for asking me what and why it is as if I thought we were going to share tastes and debate each elided swelling’s provenance.

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