You Look Great!

You Look Great!

Although I am a “healthy” lung cancer survivor, many of my lung cancer friends who may appear to be healthy are anything but.

What does health or sickness look like? Not necessarily what we might expect. A person with advanced cancer may be bald or have a full head of hair. They may be shockingly thin, obese or look healthy and fit.

When a cancer patient’s appearance does not match a preconceived image of a sick cancer patient, oftentimes people are confused and do not know how to respond.

What is someone supposed to say to a cancer patient who may have little time left on this Earth? Here is one of the most often heard comments: You look great!

What exactly does that mean?

You look like s***

One of the patients in my lung cancer support group recently shared a story about her oncologist telling her she looked great. I loved her response!

“Doctor, what are you going to tell me when I look like s***?” she asked?

He thought about that for a moment then answered honestly.

“I’ll probably say, ‘you look great!’” he told her.

Truth or denial? Faith or fate?

Perhaps telling people they look great may be an awkward attempt to comfort or encourage the person. It may be the comment of an optimistic person. On the other hand, it could be a form of denial.

A few years ago, my husband and I learned that one of our rescued cats had feline leukemia. After researching that disease, I realized the statistics were grim. I came to an understanding that our cat would most likely not survive. Our kitty was the picture of health! However, I prepared to accept the fact that he would likely die and braced myself for that sad truth.

My husband, on the other hand, believed our cat would be one of the rare survivors. Was he an optimist or in denial? Who can say? We must believe that what we hope for is achievable, which is a manifestation of faith. Or we simply accept our fate—which is the opposite of faith.

What is an appropriate response?

I have caught myself telling someone they look great when, frankly, they did not.

We have all seen people who are very sick inside but who show no outward symptoms. In a sense, telling someone he or she looks great, in spite of their diagnosis, diminishes the seriousness of their disease.

When someone tells an advanced stage cancer patient he or she looks great, what is an appropriate response? Is there a better phrase to express our optimism or concern?

If you are the person making such comments, consider your thoughts before speaking. Maybe your thought is exactly that, “You look great!” Perhaps your thought could be one of these different meanings below:

  • “You don’t look quite as bad as you should—given your condition.”
  • “If I didn’t know better, I would never have guessed that you were sick at all!”
  • “Even though you are suffering deeply, I see an inner beauty and strength in you that transcends your outward appearance.”
  • “I can tell you are sick and that scares me. I don’t know what else to say.”
  • “I do not want to lose you and cannot process these facts.”

If you are the person receiving comments such as these, how do you respond? Will a simple, “Thank you” suffice?

Please share your thoughts 1) How do you feel about hearing “You look great!” 2) How do you respond?

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