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How to Answer ‘Auto-Pilot’ Questions from Acquaintances After Diagnosis


March 14, 2024

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Photography by 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

Photography by 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

by Beth Ann Mayer


Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD


by Beth Ann Mayer


Medically Reviewed by:

Tiffany Taft, PsyD


You may get questions from people about your diagnosis. It’s not your job to educate, and it’s OK if you don’t want to share. Stock responses can help, if you choose to answer.

Mia Sandino was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in September 2018. Her condition is rare and terminal.

What’s not rare are the questions Sandino has had to field from people since her diagnosis. Often, they’re the same ones — over and over. “Did you know something was wrong?” … “How can I help?” … “Have you tried this, that, or the other?”

Sandino says it’s exhausting, and not how she wants to spend her precious time.

And yet, she says, “Answering the same questions repeatedly is practically impossible to avoid.”

Sandino is not alone. If you live with a chronic condition and find yourself answering the same questions repeatedly, neither are you.

Having stock answers to common questions can sometimes help. Read on for tips and scripts, but the TL;DR is this: every one of these questions can be, “I don’t want to share this information.”

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The emotional toll of answering questions about your condition

Sandino explains the root of the issue well.

“It makes the patient feel like they are giving an elevator pitch and regurgitating the same response each time rather than engaging in a meaningful conversation,” Sandino says. “We all just want to be seen as the person we are outside of our diagnoses.”

Erisa M. Preston, Psy.D, a licensed clinical psychologist, agrees.

“It may be well-meaning, but it is also exhausting,” says Preston. “Answering questions keeps the diagnosis — and everything that potentially goes with it — front and center [in your] mind. This can make it difficult to focus on other things that still matter to you. It can make interactions feel like [your condition] is always the elephant in the room.”

Preston stresses it’s perfectly acceptable — crucial, even — to set boundaries. You don’t owe anyone answers to their questions.

“It’s good to be polite, but it’s also good to protect your emotional energy,” Preston says.

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Easy answers for common questions

Below are some of the most common questions posed to Sandino and others who have been diagnosed with cancer or a chronic condition.

Did you know something was off?

Sandino says this question is one of the most common ones she fields.

“I personally answer as honestly as possible,” she says. “I know that people are generally curious and want to know if they should get checked or recommend someone else to get checked if they feel a certain way.”

Sandino suggests something like, “I had been feeling pain in my knee that was unexplained, as well as bad bruising. I just had a gut feeling and asked my doctor for imaging. The imaging showed where the tumor was.”

However, some people don’t experience symptoms before a cancer diagnosis or want to share if they did.

It’s kind to want to ease someone else’s anxiety, though it’s important to realize you aren’t responsible for doing so. You can emphasize the importance of regular screenings without discussing your specific experience if you’d like to.

Sara Bridges, LSCW, an oncology counselor, recommends an answer like, “For some people with cancer, there are no signs or symptoms. I am encouraging everyone to stay up to date on all preventive tests, such as mammograms and colonoscopies. Some people do notice changes, and then it’s important to see a healthcare professional.”

“This is a general way to answer the question without providing specific details regarding what the person may or may not have noticed prior to diagnosis,” Bridges says. “Without disclosing personal information, you have educated the individual and encouraged self-advocacy.”

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When will you be done with treatment?

The person may be looking for a timeframe — a three-word answer at most — but Sandino knows it’s far more complex.

“Many people may need treatment for the rest of their lives, while others just need to be closely monitored,” Sandino says.

Sandino says a simple answer like, “Treatment is volatile and can always change,” will do if you’re comfortable with it.

Preston agrees and recommends trying, “It hasn’t all been determined yet. My treatment team is evaluating options.”

“This is simple and truthful,” Preston says. “If they ask follow-up questions, you can tell them, ‘I’m trusting my doctors to tell me as soon as they have a treatment timeline for me.’”

Have you tried [insert alternative treatment]?

This question is a frustrating one for people with chronic illnesses, and yet it’s a frequent one.

“When people are newly diagnosed with cancer — and this also applies to other conditions — some people may make suggestions [like] ‘Have you tried ginseng?’ or ‘Try acupuncture,’” says psychiatrist Gary Small, MD.

Instead of taking the bait, you can let them know about your medical team.

“Tell them that you have a great medical team and are following their guidance,” says Small. “If they are suggesting a non-medical way to relieve nausea or fatigue, you can thank them and say you’ll look into it.”

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How can I help?

Sandino says this question is almost always well-intentioned.

“Answering honestly can be helpful if you know ways that the asker can help,” Sandino says.

Do you have a task you’d like to offload or need help with? You might use your answer to speak up about it.

“Try to provide specific examples and offer some options,” says Sandra Caparco, LCSW, an oncology social worker. “For example, ‘It would be great if you could give me a ride to my medical appointment’ or ’It would be helpful if you could pick up my kids from school.’”

But not everyone wants help or would prefer to keep their “villages” smaller.

“If you don’t want their help or believe they don’t truly want to help, one of my favorite answers is ‘Just keep being yourself,’” Sandino says. “This answer provides the asker with a compliment and usually will wrap up that part of the conversation.”

A variation? “Just listen and be a friend,” Small says.

Do you want to talk to my friend who beat cancer?

Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room.

“The problem with this question is that it suggests personal blame on the patient for not being able to ‘beat their own cancer,’” Small says.

Still, people’s desire to accept this offer may vary. Some may find speaking with someone who received a similar diagnosis useful or want to build a larger village.

In this case, Preston suggests saying, “I think that could be really helpful. Are they someone you think would want to share about their experiences with a perfect stranger?”

This acknowledges that support could be helpful, as well as the potential awkwardness of such an intimate exchange.

“Being a cancer survivor is different for everyone,” says Preston. “Responding in this way acknowledges that while you appreciate this acquaintance offering to make the connection, you also want to be respectful of the survivor’s boundaries.”

If you’re not interested, Caparco suggests saying, “I appreciate your concern and offer, but I will let you know if that will be helpful to me in the future.”

The phrase lets the person know your current wishes while leaving room to change your mind. It also indicates that you’ll be the one to inform them about any pivots.

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What are your odds?

This question upsets Sandino the most.

“This question is the most infuriating for me,” Sandino says. “The question is blunt, so your answer can be blunt as well.”

Bridges agrees this one is not OK.

“Your health is your business, and you do not ever have to share anything you do not want to with others,” Bridges says. “If you are not bothered by the question … share … However, if this question makes you uncomfortable, it’s very appropriate to not answer the specific question and share why it’s just too personal.”

Keep it straightforward and short.

Bridges suggests, “That’s a tough question. I would rather not discuss such personal information.”

Did you smoke? Did you drink? Did you eat XYZ?

Small says this prying question places unnecessary blame on someone with cancer and is often based on misconceptions that most cancers are “caused” by something a person did.

“Most cancers have both environmental and genetic determinants,” Small says.

This truth can also be scarier than leaning into the misconception, hence the question.

“Without realizing it, people are often looking for a cause so that they can reassure themselves that they will be OK,” Bridges says. “If you smoked and then got cancer, and I don’t smoke, then I feel safer and less at risk of the same thing happening to me.”

Bridges suggests, “There might be some risk factors that impacted my situation; however, I don’t feel like exploring that right here, right now.”

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Did anyone in your family have cancer?

People look for genetic factors for the same reason they look at lifestyle choices: comfort. That said, genetics can be a risk for some cancers. How you answer is up to you.

If the answer is yes and you want to share, Preston suggests something like, “A couple of people, which is why I was screened for it.”

She says this answer gives some detail but not a ton. If the answer is no, you might say, “Not that we’re aware of. It doesn’t always come from family history.”

“This gives a quick reminder that cancer can be random,” she says.


After receiving a cancer diagnosis, a person may find themselves on the receiving end of personal questions that can feel overwhelming to answer.

You’re not required to.

However, having stock answers in place can help establish boundaries and protect your energy and peace. Just remember, it’s not your responsibility to manage someone else’s fears or curiosity.

Medically reviewed on March 14, 2024

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About the author

Beth Ann Mayer

Beth Ann Mayer is a New York-based freelance writer and content strategist who specializes in health and parenting writing. Her work has been published in Parents, Shape, and Inside Lacrosse. She is a co-founder of digital content agency Lemonseed Creative and is a graduate of Syracuse University. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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