We all wonder what to say to someone with cancer.

It’s not always straightforward. Such a conundrum occurred to me when I was last at the hospital. Another diagnostic tool they treat you to is a breast MRI. It’s really neat and you get to stick your teats in metal slots while you rest your head in this spa head rest thingy. Hold your breath for twenty-five minutes and you’re done. Really. Sheila, the late-night technician, asked me very kindly if I could take shallow breaths. Okay. Stop breathing. When they say “still”, they mean business. All the while the machine is blasting like I’m four feet from a fire alarm trying to make my way down the stairwell of a ten story building. Without moving. Or breathing.

 The Waiting

The second waiting room was very intimate and there were four women (blessedly not wearing pink) waiting to be magnetized by the machine. Two were in for brain scans (brains seem to be popular for cancer these days) and the third was in for a chest MRI. She had been through the ringer, as evidenced by her bald head and the fact that she had Stage 4 cancer that had metastasized to her bone. Lifetime smoker who quit five years ago. Lung cancer that spread to surrounding tissue. As each person was called forward for her scan, I grappled with what to say.

So, What

“Good luck” seemed garish. “Break a leg” seemed inappropriate. “See you soon” didn’t hit the right chord either. The Stage 4 cancer patient didn’t have any sage advice, though I really expected her to. 


The worst part was actually when they set the I.V. in my vein. As I waited in my peacock blue bark-o-lounger in the middle of the room for five or six minutes, I was subjected to the worst kind of torture. Celine Dion was singing from the loudspeaker. Mildly less worse than that, the next song was “Hungry Eyes” from the Dirty Dancing Soundtrack. Trying to escape the musical madness, I asked Charlotte, the kindly technician sticking needles in my skin, about my quandary over what to say to fellow patients as we interacted with each other. She had obviously given this some thought and said, perfectly, “Be well.”

be well